How should I pick a flight school?
Picking the right flight school can be one of the most critical decisions you make as you start the journey towards becoming a licensed pilot. It’s a big decision since you’re trusting your developing skills to these people, spending a lot of money on the process, and trusting them to keep you alive while you learn. But how do you pick one? They’re all going to be hungry for your business and will all probably tell you a lot of things about how qualified they are. Some of the things they tell you will involve a fair amount of jargon and might muddy the waters a bit, so here’s some advice on how to go about the process.
While there isn’t an aviation specialized Yelp-style website, Yelp itself might be a good place to start. Keep in mind that this is the internet and people can say… pretty much whatever they want. I wouldn’t put a whole lot of stock in one or two testimonials (good or bad) but rather look for trends. The issue you may run into here is that there may not be very many reviews, so this bar is a low one.
The school itself should have a professional look about it. If the place is a disaster of chairs, papers, books, magazines, and other detritus then that gives you an idea about the mentality of the place. Most flight schools can’t afford to have marble table tops or leather furniture everywhere so keep your expectations in check.
The employees of the school should look professional. They won’t all be wearing suits and ties, but a business casual look should be expected. Listen to the alarm bells in your head if you see an instructor wearing jeans with holes in them or sandals.
The most important part, once you’ve assessed that this is an establishment that you’d like to do business with, is picking an instructor from their crew. Many flight schools will try to hook you up with an instructor who isn’t all that busy at the moment. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, don’t let yourself just get swept along with this tactic. YOU should be the person picking your instructor.
The fact of the matter is that most flight instructors don’t stay in that part of the industry long enough to actually make a name for themselves. Most teach for about a year to build their time, then get out of teaching when they land an airline or corporate position. These pilots might not be all that bad as trainers and some instructors who are airline-bound also have a passion for teaching… but they may also have one foot out the door. It’s a huge disruption to have an instructor depart right in the middle of your training so you’re going to want some assurance that you’re going to be seen through to the end.
An instructor who has only been teaching for a few months isn’t necessarily a bad thing either, but know that you’re going to be working with somebody who is still learning how to teach. They’ll likely know the material cold but getting the info into your head might take more significant effort on your part since the instructor hasn’t had a lot of practice. Take your learning style into consideration: Are you a technically minded person? Can you pick things up reasonably well from books or videos? Do you have the discipline to go study on your own for a bit to fill in any of the gaps? If you can answer yes to those questions then working with a newer instructor won’t be a problem.
More experienced instructors are going to give you a greater depth of understanding as they’ll understand the subject matter more intuitively and, better still, they’ll understand your learning more intuitively. Most instructors who have been doing this for a while will already know the misconceptions you might have around different subject areas and will be prepared up front to help you get past them more effortlessly. Many of us have developed situations or scenarios that we utilize to get people over the “hump” of a complex subject – thus you’ll be able to learn more efficiently and possibly go above and beyond what’s required.
So how do you tell who you’re dealing with? There are a few indicators that you can look for to get a feel for an instructor’s commitment to learning and experience level:
Ask if they’re a member of the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI) or Society of Aviation Flight Educators (SAFE). Granted, buying a membership in NAFI or SAFE is a pretty low bar, but they’re both institutions committed to instructor excellence and are entirely optional. A CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) who is a member of those organizations is at least attempting to be a part of that community.
There are other organizations that are more specific too, so I think a good general question would be “What training organizations are you a member of?” I’m a member of the Cirrus Standardized Instructor Program, myself, since I specialize in teaching in Cirrus airplanes. Just about everybody is a member of AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association) so don’t be too impressed by that one.
Ask if they’re a Gold Seal instructor. The Gold Seal is awarded to an instructor when they achieve a minimum of an 80% first time pass rate for a minimum of 10 applicants in the last 24 months. If they have a gold seal, it implies that they’ve both been around a while and are also committed to excellent training.
Ask if they’re a Master CFI. The Master label is bestowed by NAFI and isn’t a regulatory designation, but it does indicate a large amount of involvement with the aviation community and a dedication to teaching. There are a number of ways an instructor can earn the Master label but they all require work and time. Know too that there isn’t just one kind of “Master CFI” achievements, there are a few specialized Master-type labels for other markets. I’m a Platinum Cirrus Instructor, for example, which is the highest recognition they give in the Cirrus instruction world.
Experienced instructors are only half of the equation though. Personality is important. I know a number of Gold Seal, Master instructors who have been teaching for years that I wouldn’t learn well from simply because their personality would grate on me. Take the time to talk a little with the instructor and ask open-ended questions like “What’s your philosophy on teaching?” Let them talk you into working with them… or talk you out of it!
Above all learning to fly should be fun and organized with a clear road map to the goal. Some people like a more military styled instructor. Some like a more laid back person… but their style of teaching needs to match up well with your style of learning. Be picky!
Finally, as I alluded to above, there should be a plan for the finish line. Many schools will start by scheduling you for a lesson or two, but I highly recommend getting ALL your lessons (or at the very least 75% of them) scheduled right up front. Treat your training as a part time job where you get to pick the hours and work with your school/instructor to figure out the dates. Plan your life far enough in advance that you’ll be able to accommodate your lessons without large breaks (else you’ll lose ground, spend even longer, and spend more money). If the school will not let you do this kind of scheduling then take that as a sign that you might be served better someplace else. Having a route to the finish line is a sure way to help you know your own progress and to make sure the school or instructor isn’t trying to squeeze as many hours out of you as they can.
Chief Pilot, The Flight Academy