When researching a career-focused flight school, you need to have a foundation of knowledge, or you won’t know how to evaluate the information you find. Furthermore, without a solid foundation of knowledge you won’t know what questions to ask, nor will you understand the meaning of the answers you receive.
This article is designed to help you build a foundation of valuable knowledge and information before researching either helicopter or fixed wing flight schools (some of the information in this article is specific to helicopter flight training).
How did we come to the conclusions and statements of fact in this article? We spoke to career commercial pilots who were more than willing to share their wisdom and experience. What’s more, they shared their mistakes. Many of the pilots we spoke to made statements like, “Had I known then what I know now, I would have done things different.”
Our intent in this article was to gather nuggets of wisdom and share them with those who can benefit the most – prospective student pilots. Our mission was to capture good information from the experience of those who have successfully ventured the pathway to becoming a commercial pilot and then share it with those who can use it to their advantage.
Most commercial pilots had a favorable report to share regarding their flight school experience, but some did not. Some pilots felt that the information that they received from their flight school was misleading and unimportant in the real world of aviation. Some reported that there were sales gimmicks that a few flight schools use to lure in unsuspecting students who don’t know any better.
There is one thing that we found out that is pretty much a guarantee. When speaking to career commercial pilots everyone has a strong opinion, and a “I wished that I could have…” statement. Our proposition in this article is that prospective students can gain valuable knowledge and insight and perhaps avoid some of the pitfalls and mistakes made by others.
Therefore, before you begin your search for the perfect flight school we believe that you will benefit greatly by better understanding the process that awaits. At the very least, after reading this article we hope that you will be armed with a few of the right questions to ask the flight schools you interview. Also, we have added some unique insights that will help you to glean the best information from your research efforts.
Number One: This article is written for prospective student pilots who are seeking a career in aviation as a commercial pilot. If this is not you, don’t bother reading another sentence. This article is not written for the recreational pilot. There is a huge difference between getting a private pilot’s license for recreational flying and a career-based commercial flight training program.
To become a commercial pilot, you are going to spend the next 18 to 24 months (perhaps more) earning your pilot’s certificates. Then, you will spend another one to two years building flight time so that you can meet the industryqualifications to get your first non-CFI job. Obviously, the knowledge base you need as a commercial pilot is far greater than that of a recreational pilot. This article is dedicated to those folks who’s heart is set on becoming a career pilot.
Number Two: It’s all about getting a good job. We assume that the reason you are looking into flight school is because you want to get paid for flying. If our assumption is right then one of the most important details you want to know about flight school is, “Do their graduates get jobs?” Getting a good job after flight training is the most important factor that should drive all decisions moving forward. Trust us, you don’t want to be an unemployed licensed commercial pilot struggling to get a job.
Each question you seek to answer should support your overall goal of finding a flight training program that will best prepare you to compete for the best piloting jobs (we will go into more detail on this important subject later). For example, logic will tell you that you have a much better chance to get a good paying job with a Masters degree from Harvard than an associates degree from Sarasota Community College. Therefore, your focus should be on finding the pathway that will help the most to get a job flying aircraft and advance your career. If getting a college degree increases your value, then get one.
Number Three: Focus your research on reputable sources only. What is a reputable source of information? There are many sources out there, some good, and some bad. Our recommendation is that you speak with real live employed commercial pilots (we will go into “How to interview pilots” later in the article). Generally speaking, employed pilots are a reputable source.
We suggest that you talk to as many pilots as you can about the aviation industry, but qualify those you talk to first. For example, don’t spend a lot of time talking to unemployed pilots, especially chronically unemployed pilots who have struggled to find jobs. Avoid those who are disgruntled and negative altogether. These people, for whatever reason, did not follow the right pathway (or they are just really unlucky). Something went wrong, and they have not figured it out yet. However, if you are looking for the wrong path perhaps you should talk to unemployed pilots (be forewarned: they are usually disgruntled, biased, and sometimes bitter).
We recommend that you stay away from the aviation forums, especially the helicopter forums. Most successful pilots are too busy to post comments on the forums. If you spend any time on these forums, you’ll quickly find that some of the “regular posters” are egotistical, angry, and they complain a lot. It’s a negative venue to say the least. You will also find way too many trolls and haters – it’s a big waste of time.
Especially on the helicopter forums you will find egos and opinions from people with too much time on their hands (the chronically unemployed). Moreover, you will find sales people representing flight schools who will attempt to steer you toward their school (remember, the goal is to talk with real live commercial pilots). Avoid the forums if you can.
Instead, talk to real live employed commercial pilots – they obviously found the right path. They probably made some mistakes that you can learn from, and will most likely share valuable wisdom and experience you can leverage. Understand that each pilot will have biased information (they only know the value and benefits they derived from their own personal experience, but the chances are their information will be mostly valid). Therefore, talk to more than just one experienced pilot. Seek out as many pilots as you can and start identifying their patterns of success.
Number Four: Invest your time into aviation industry associations, especially those that cater to the student pilot population. Sign up to receive their newsletters and email alerts. Attend their annual conferences, such as HeliExpo and HeliSuccess. These conferences will put you smack dab in the middle of those you need to hear from. Network the industry, meet people, and ask questions. More importantly, listen.
Number Five: Have a realistic and open frame of mind. Trying to find a flight school that will fit your needs perfectly is like looking for a needle in 100 story tall haystack. We don’t want to burst your bubble, but there are only a handful of good commercial flight schools in the U.S. This means you are most likely going to have to move.
As a matter of fact many student pilots move across the country to a place where they do not know a single soul. We recommend that you stretch your comfort zone and get ready to sacrifice this vision of the “perfect” flight school. The goal is to find the school that will best prepare you for the industry – a school that will help you transition from flight school to your first real industry job. In other words, the location of the flight school will not matter. Be prepared to make some real sacrifices in order to go to the best flight school.
After spending time with real pilots (building relationships) you might have enough base knowledge and information to move forward with your research. Below you will find some important issues that will need to be addressed by each flight school that you interview.
Moreover, be ready to whittle your flight school selections down to two schools and be willing to visit them before you enroll. You can apply to both, but before you commit to enroll, we recommend that you go and visit. Furthermore, make sure that your visit is more than one day. Spend quality time (several days if not three or four) with the top choice schools.
Go tour the school, but make time to hang out for a few days. Make yourself at home and attempt to get a good feel for the school for a few days. Once you commit to a flight school it will become your home for the next few years and beyond. Choosing the right flight school should never be done on the whim. Take your time, investigate, discover, and experience the culture and people before committing.
1. Weight limits: How will my weight effect the cost of my training? If you weigh less than 180 lbs go on to the next question – you are good. But if you are above 200, definitely read this first question and be ready to discuss the situation with the flight school. Why is your weight important? Training aircraft (i.e., the Robinson R22) has a maximum weight restriction. The R22 is the cheapest flight training aircraft you will find (it is also one of the best). If you weight too much you might have to train in an R44, which is double the cost. If you are above 200 lbs and have weight to lose, lose it (it’s better for your health in the long run anyway). If you are above 200 lbs definitely discuss your weight with the flight school to ensure they have plenty of smaller flight instructors (the weight restrictions is a total weight [you and the instructor]).
2. Medical issues: Every student pilot, before they can begin flight training, will need to pass a 3rd class medical. The medical will be conducted totally independent of the flight school and will be performed by an FAA approved aviation medical examiner. Any and all health related issues (including hearing, psychological evals, prescription drug and alcohol use [i.e., DUI convictions]) will be discussed and screened by the AME. We recommend that you tell the truth and spill the beans. If you are caught falsifying info you will be stripped of your licenses.
Be ready to talk with the flight school of your choice regarding any issues related to your medical. If you have your medical before you start talking to flight schools, let them know up front. This is a good thing.
3. Physical aptitude: Passing the medical exam does not guarantee that you can fly, or that it is safe for you to fly. If you have any physical limitations or handicaps, be prepared to discuss them up front.
You do not necessarily have to be uber strong to be a pilot. However, flying will require physical coordination and intense concentration. You need to be able to think while conducting precise movements with your hands and feet (simultaneously). If you are not super coordinated, ask the flight school how they instruct people who can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
4. Academic readiness: The aeronautical knowledge set you will learn is challenging, no doubt. But if you study hard and put in the time, you will get it. The big issue is about the volume of knowledge you are required to learn (master). You need to ask the school how they support the student to learn all that is required to pass the exams. There are many different learning styles. Does the school take this into consideration when matching a student with an instructor?
When interviewing flight schools ask specific questions about their teaching methods – are they able to match your particular learning style with a teaching approach that is best suited for your learning needs? If you are ADD or ADHD, ask how the flight instructors are able to effectively teach people who are easily distracted. Having ADD or ADHD does not preclude you from becoming a skilled pilot, but sometimes the teaching methods of some instructors are more conducive to those who struggle with attention span. Ask the school if they are able to help those with attention issues.
5. Psychological suitability: Flying helicopters or fixed wing aircraft can be a scary endeavor. Learning to fly will test you psychologically, and it should. Fear is inevitable, but you can learn to respond well under fearful situations. But how do instructors train students to deal with emergency situations? Ask the flight school how they approach flight training in this respect? Let’s say a big gust of wind comes up and the aircraft get’s unpredictable. How will the flight instructor prepare the students for situations like this?
Some schools offer hands-on individualized instruction, where the instructor takes into consideration your unique personality and learning style. Some schools are like factories, and their goal is to churn out pilots. In regard to these factory style schools, if you need special help you probably won’t get it. Ask the questions that will prompt the school to walk you through the process of how they prepare students to be successful.
Flying will put you under intense pressure at times and it is unwise to freak out. The question is, “How does the school teach students to be calm under pressure? Being calm is easy for some, and others need to develop the skill. How do they do it”?
6. School support to students (student services): The best schools have what we refer to as a “family environment”. In a family, there is concern is for the total well-being of the family member. Life happens even when you are in flight school. Ask the flight school if they have student support services. Do they have an open door policy where you can discuss personal issues (with confidentiality).
If this is important to you find out how the school approaches the security and wellbeing of their students. Perhaps they don’t, and only the strong survive. If that fits your style then it’s all good. But if you would rather have a strong foundation of support, ask “how do you support students who are struggling with life issues?” The truth is that flight training is intense, and sometimes you will feel overwhelmed. The question is, will you get support through the rough times?
7. Motivation: How does the flight school motivate students? You might be very motivated to fly in the beginning, but after the everyday grind of studying, flying, working and going to class begins to drag you down (and it will), how does the school keep their students motivated? Or do they?
Some flight schools will do nothing to motivate the students, and the students are totally responsible to motivate themselves. If that works for you, then great. But if you are someone that wants to know that you will surrounded by professional people who really care about your success, then ask this question… “how does your school keep students motivated?”
Does the school present a culture of encouragement, or is it dog-eat-dog and those who can’t keep up drop out? Every student pilot goes through a drought period filled with disappointment. It’s a part of the process of learning to fly. Ask, “how does the school help students to deal with the pressure of learning to fly?”
Struggling to learn the principles of flying is not a bad thing at all. However, sometimes encouragement from instructors and staff is needed to get you through the tough spots. Does the school take this into accountability, and if so, how?
8. Types of jobs your graduates can look forward to (based on former student job placements): Will the flight school hire you as a flight instructor after you earn your CFI or CFII? Does the school hire graduates, and if not, why? Do they selectively hire student grads, and if so, what are the qualifications? What is the hiring process like, and what do successful candidates need to do in order to get hired? How much do they pay new CFI’s, and is there possibilities of advancement and pay increases? If so, how does one go about getting a better CFI position and how much do they pay?
Be ready to ask for references and referrals (former student grads that are in the industry flying as professional pilots). You will want to talk to student graduates that have completed the program and have gone on to secure good paying jobs. Ask how many students wash out of the program and why? Ask if there are any graduates that have struggled to get jobs, and if so, why? Ask if you can talk with them.
The flight school should give you a list of references to call, text, or email. If they won’t give you former student references, ask why? You also want to know of the types of jobs graduates are getting. Ask, “do you have former students flying for Gas and Oil Companies, Emergency Medical Services, Law Enforcement, Fire Contracts, Tour and Charter companies, etc.?
9. Part 61 or Part 141, or both? This question does not need to go into depth. You just need to know whether they train under Part 141, or Part 61, and do you have a choice between the two.
10.Fixed wing or helicopter flight training? What about both? Ask the school about their specialty. Do they instruct helicopter, fixed wing, or both? If they do both, which type of training get’s the focus? Some flight schools will offer helicopter training, but their speciality is fixed wing training. Sometimes the helicopter students are treated like redheaded step children. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions, and pay attention to how the school answers the tough questions. If you are compelled to ask, ask. There is no dumb question.
11.Your school’s recommended specific training path to employment: Does the school have a clear pathway from student to commercial pilot (flying in the industry)? Is there a preferred pathway (formula) that is unique to the school, and if so, will it help you compete better for industry jobs? Does your school design their program around the specific demands of industry employers?
The best schools know what employers want, and do whatever it takes to prepare students to make the grade. Again, the most important value of a flight school is whether or not your training will get you a job. Ask the questions about how the school goes about preparing students for employment.
Does the school directly help student graduates get jobs or are students on their own? Does the school take pride in sending qualified pilots out to industry? If so, how can they prove it? Or, are you on your own to get your first non-CFI job?
Ask the school to give you a list of “Tier 1 Employers” (industry entry level employers) that have hired their students. Call these employers and ask them what they think of the school’s graduates? If the employer say, “we prefer hiring pilots from school “xyz” then you are talking to the right flight school. If the employer says, “we prefer not to hire from school “xyz”, then the interview of the school is over.
12.How long will it take me to go from zero flight hours to CFII? Make sure the answer to this question is concise. We realize that the length of time is dependent on the proficiency and performance of each student, but the school needs to be able to give you a range. Typically, it will take at least 18 months to get up to a CFII rating. It can be done in less time, but the question needs to be asked, “what is the average length of time for students at this school?”
13.How much will it cost to go from zero flight hours to CFII? Same as the question above (#12). There will be a range depending upon proficiency and performance. But what is the range, and what is the average cost?
14.How important is getting my college degree through flight school? The best schools will tell you the truth. The truth is that you can get a helicopter pilot job without a degree. Fixed wing employers want you to have your degree. However, regarding helicopter companies… they will tell you that you will have an advantage if you have a degree, and the industry is heading in the same direction as fixed wing. It would not surprise us that helicopter companies will begin requiring pilots to have a degree soon.
Please note: There are more non-pilot aviation jobs available in the aviation industry than there are pilot jobs. If for some reason you are unable to fly, with a degree you will be qualified for many good paying jobs in the aviation field. It is our recommendation that you get a college degree as your back up, and a way to get promotions over non-degreed pilots. When considering advancement with aviation companies, people with degrees and tons of logged flight hours get the best paying jobs.
15.Safety record? A school’s safety record is vital. Being the 15th question on this list by no means reflect that it is a low priority. This might be the first question you ask. If the school cannot verify it’s safety record, there is no reason for you to continue the interview and all other questions are irrelevant. All schools have incidents (when people are learning to fly there will be incidents). But the school’s approach to safety is extremely important. The best schools have a culture of safety, where safety is the number one priority above all – this is the school for you.
16.Can I schedule a tour at any time? We would not recommend enrolling into any flight school that you have not visited. You need to go and get to know the folks at the flight school. Also, is the location conducive to your lifestyle? Do you have a spouse and kids? Will your family be best served (i.e., can your spouse get a good job in the town or city the school is located in? Is there child care? Are the elementary schools good? Is there something for families to do while you are in flight school?). There are a lot of questions that can’t be answered without a visit. Take two or three days and make it a thorough visit.
The answers to these questions will reveal the heart and soul of the flight school. Depending upon how the school answers these questions, it may help you to evaluate the thoroughness and depth of the flight school as it pertains to advancing your career as a commercial pilot – “how dialed in are these schools?”
You can get started today by filling out our online application. If you would like more information, you can call us at (801) 596-7722.