How do you Pick the Right Flight School for Your Goals and Circumstances?

One of the most talked about (and requested) topics for aspiring student pilots: how do I navigate this sea of training schools, options, advertisements, promises, and costs? Do I pick a modular course, or integrated? Should I expect to be a flight instructor first or not? What about the instrument rating (IR)? How many hours do I need to get a job? Today we are going to answer all these questions, and more!

At the end, we will go over a 5 step guide to use these considerations and variables, and make a plan of action to choose the best training school for your goals and circumstances! So sit back, relax, take a deep breath, and let’s go over all the options and considerations that you should take into account, whether you want to be a fixed wing or rotary wing pilot.

MODULAR VS INTEGRATED

The age old debate: should I do a modular or an integrated training course? You will find two major camps for this debate, each defending one way of doing it and throwing mud at the other since the start of the aviation training industry. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It depends very much on your circumstances, location in the world, your priorities and preferences, as well as on what options are actually available to you specifically.

In Western Europe, as an aspiring airline pilot, a lot of people who come straight out of university (or sometimes high school), will highly likely end up picking an integrated course. The reason for this is because there are quite a few flight schools that have close ties to the airlines, or are even owned by them. Unfortunately this is only possible in countries where you can get state backed student loans (and even that is tricky), or otherwise access to the required finances (and it’s expensive).

In the USA however, airlines demand that applicants have an ATPL, which will require at least 1500 flying hours – a very different dynamic. While most integrated training courses in Europe are more expensive in general (schools are leveraging their reputation and ties to the airlines), it can make the process of getting a job a lot easier for a lot of students. It has worked for many, and will work for many in the future as well, but it’s not for everyone.

When it comes to costs and time for instance, there are huge arguments for the modular route as well. Integrated will demand you to be available for at least 12 months depending on add-on courses afterwards such as a Multi Crew Coordination Course (MCC), a Jet Orientation Course (JOC), and often even an A320 or B737 Type Rating (TR) before even applying for the next phase.

If you pick the whole package, depending on the school, it could easily take 12-18 months of fulltime studying, flying, living abroad, and you will often have to pay everything upfront, or in large instalments (4 x 25% for instance throughout the course duration). Expect a thorough selection process, especially in the case of airlines getting involved during the initial intake into the flight school itself.

If you can make that commitment, and are in a position where you can get access to funds, or have saved up for it by working other jobs before, it could be a good pick. However, for a lot of people – especially the ones who do not have the money upfront or find those routes way too expensive (this applies to a lot of people in today’s industry), the modular route allows for more gradual cash flow and flexible time management.

This reduces the pace (and often costs) of training. If you have decided you want (or need) to work while training, the modular route is the option that allows for that, unlike the integrated courses.

The other factor to consider is that the syllabus takes a slightly different shape. The typical modular course timeline goes: PPL course – ATPL Theory exams – hour building – CPL course – IR or FI course. Integrated however, sometimes does not have these individual licenses such as the PPL and CPL and you will often find that schools get you through the entire ATPL theory exams before letting you even touch an aircraft. More efficient, but not as fun some would argue.

During a modular course, expect everything to be ‘distance learning’ where you are solely responsible for your studying and tuition using books, while integrated courses have structured classroom tuition as part of their requirements.

For helicopters, the amount of schools in the world that actually have proper ‘ties’ to major helicopter companies are very scarce and you will need to do proper research before giving anyone your money if that is their major selling point. The helicopter industry functions very differently compared to the airlines industry, and will not have companies with 3000 pilots, with 100 pilots retiring every year.

If a company has 10 pilots, all of which are very happy and not looking to retire for the next 20 years, there is not much you are going to be able to do there, especially if it is all flown as Single Pilot Operations and there is no need for First Officers.

This means there is less ‘flow’ and therefore streamlined processes observed in the European fixed wing industry do not exist in the same way, apart from some occasional exceptions. With helicopters, the flight instructor route is a lot more prominent.

In Europe, this means you will need at least 220 total hours with 100 PIC hours to start the course. Make sure you weigh off the amount of hours you will gain for modular vs integrated at each school, and what the route to starting your flight instructor course looks like.

Integrated courses will give you a CPL(H) with less hours to get there, which is more efficien. Modular however, will give you more hours as there is more hour building involved between your PPL and CPL.

SHOULD I GET AN IR OR AN FI QUALIFICATION?

Again, for the fixed wing students, this is an easier decision compared to the helicopter students. If your goal is to fly for the airlines (which is the case for the majority of fixed wing students), you cannot avoid getting your IR at some point in time, usually during your initial training course.

For helicopters, the IR is a lot more expensive and usually comes with an ultimatum for students who can only invest in either a Multi Engine IR or an FI. What to do here? Well, there’s two routes and they very much depends on your risk averseness / appetite:

  • Lower risk but lower salary prospects: Go for the FI, become a flight instructor, make a relatively low salary, but with more certainty of actually landing that job (usually at the school you trained with).
  • Higher risk but higher salary prospects: Skip the FI, go straight into the IR, and apply for the larger operators straight away who fly bigger helicopters and need First Officers. The selection of companies is smaller here, and this decision is considered a lot riskier. If you managed to make it work though, the career progression will likely be much more lucrative now that you have an IR and are getting experience on bigger types in multi crew environments.

One of the problems at the moment is that the helicopter industry is also, over time, slowly moving to more commonly requiring applicants to have an Instrument Rating, even for jobs that you could argue would never use it such as VFR air ambulance, law enforcement or even pleasure flying. This makes it harder for students to ignore the IR completely as time moves on. In the USA, an IR can be obtained on a small 2 seater, but in most of Europe, most IR courses are all completed on a Multi Engine type, which can bring the costs to around €30,000 to €60,000 for just the IR!

Which one you should choose will, again, depend on your current situation and will be different for everyone, so don’t blindly copy what other people are doing – sit down and figure out what matches your preferences and local industry needs. People’s feedback and recommendations can be very helpful though so don’t dismiss it either, it’s a balance.

If you do get an IR however, and skip the FI altogether, just be aware that it could be difficult to find a job if plan A fails, as you will not have a solid method to get experience. Few companies will hire a pilot straight out of school without an IR, unless you have good connections.

WHAT ABOUT THE MILITARY?

The military can be a very good way to start your aviation career as well, but expect it to come with a contract that will last at least 5-10 years. It will offer you a wealth of very valuable experience and won’t cost you the vasts amounts of money you will otherwise be spending on flight training.

You will need to ask yourself what you actually want to achieve though, and what your preferred career path looks like. Can see yourself being a military pilot? If you don’t actually WANT it, you should not pursue this. Purely joining the military because of finances (with the aim to transition to the commercial industry) is not going to lead to a fulfilling career. Finances should not be the main reason for such a life-changing commitment.

If you’ve always wanted to be an Apache or fast jet pilot, you should absolutely go for it, and don’t let the pessimists bring you down with all their ‘only 2 out of 100 will actually get hired’ speak – it doesn’t add anything to anything, as long as you don’t delude yourself. Just give the selection process your absolute best without getting distracted by nuisance and enjoy the ride.

As this article is mostly tailored for the commercial fixed wing and rotary wing industry, let’s talk about the variables that you will have to assess when it comes to picking a commercial flight school.

AIRCRAFT

What type does the school operate? Do you want to be trained in a conventional cockpit, or a glass cockpit? How many aircraft are there? If there are 3 aircraft but over 20 students, things will get tricky when it comes to time slots, maintenance, and other unforeseen circumstances. Do the aircraft look like they are being looked after, or do they belong in an aircraft boneyard?

Is maintenance performed on base, or is an aircraft grounded for days whenever something goes wrong and engineers will have to come to base from elsewhere? Some schools use remote engineering bases, which means aircraft will have to be flown to engineering bases to get their routine maintenance done. Do not let schools use your flight training time to fly an aircraft there. It is often a waste of your valuable flight time, unless perhaps during a navigation exercise.

COST

This is obviously a big one for most of us, and is super subjective to what you find acceptable and within your means. Do not let schools upsell, if you do your research properly, and know what you want, be crystal clear with your intentions and learn from people who have done it before you.

If everyone is indicating to you a certain course might be worth it, you could consider it. But there are a lot of schools out there who will try to sell you every type rating in existence (more prominent in the helicopter industry, as each type will require its own entire course + test and license sign off). This usually leaves you with extra ratings to maintain, with not a lot of benefit, unless chosen for a specific purpose.

Most of the cheaper schools tend to be modular, but ask yourself if you are willing to pay the extra money for a promise to land at a major airline straight out of flight school, or not? Keep in mind that there are no guarantees in the aviation industry. Schools go bankrupt, so do airlines – things change. The aviation industry has constant cycles of amazing times followed by hardship: make sure your decisions are informed and verify information accordingly.

When planning your financial picture, do not just go off the training costs that the school provides you with. Ask the hard questions: are books included, fuel, ground school, exams, CAA / FAA / EASA fees? Some schools even provide accommodation! Make sure you have the FULL picture and account for all costs, including the commute for a year or more and quite often (in the UK for instance) VAT (tax) is not included in the advertised price, so verify this as well.

OPPORTUNITIES

What does the school offer you after training? Any school would be more than happy to train you as long as you pay them. But what separates them from the rest? Ask this question outright. Do your research. Are they owned by a major airline? Do they have a side business transporting VIP’s? Are they linked to a pleasure flying or tourist transportation business at the other side of the country?

If there are things they can offer you, it could be worth taking that into account, but again: there are no guarantees, so do not make decisions based on assumptions. Your flight school will be your place where all your links and ties to the industry will start, and doing your training there will automatically result in people knowing and trusting your if you do a good job.

So use this benefit and make the most of it to get yourself established in the industry, whether that means being a load master for a year, an instructor, or going straight into the airlines or a major helicopter operator: take this step seriously!

LOCATION

Is your school based in sunny California or Portugal, or between the snowy mountains in Switzerland or Norway? Every location has its pros and cons. Most integrated courses that are more streamlined, require flight training to be done in a location where the weather allows for VFR operations most of the time to avoid delays. If time is your biggest concern and you want to complete your training within a certain timeframe, this is an important consideration.

I did my flight training in the UK, and had plenty of days (especially in winter) where I was grounded due to weather, sometimes for a whole week due to fog, mist, low clouds, etc. Of course you should always make good use of that time on the ground by studying and learning new things, but if you pressed for time, or have long commutes and do things modularly, this will eat into your training efficiency.

Can you afford to move, or do your life circumstances synergise with it, or not at all? If you have a husband / wife / children, this will affect your decision making and will change the options available to you depending on your arrangements.

Only aiming for fair weather locations due to your time preference has it cons as well though. You will learn a lot by spending most of you initial training in busy airspace with poor weather to consider at all times. Northern Europe for instance will give you more experience to adverse weather than locations with less abrupt and aggressive weather. The same counts for areas that are hot + high, mountainous, or known for other variables that make flight training more demanding.

TRAINING ENVIRONMENT AND CULTURE

This one is a little harder to gauge, and can only be assessed during one of the steps in the guide below. The training environment and culture is crucial to what your setup and experience is going to be like during your 12-18 months of training (if doing it full time).

Some flight schools struggle financially, and will put that financial pressure on you as a student. This is a massive red flag and should not be accepted. The problem is that this is very hard to gauge beforehand unless you have links with people who are already there and can tell you more about life as a student (or employee) there.

The environment and culture should be conducive to being able to study and focus properly, without administrative distractions and incompetent financial administration being fired upon students 24/7. The instructors are a big contributor to this as well, so again, this will be hard to assess without physically visiting the school.

At the end of the day, you are both a student and a customer, the school is there to empower you and get you ready for your new career over the time you are going to spend there. If the school’s daily actions and culture do not contribute to this, it’s time to look for a different school.

INSTRUCTORS

Instructors come in all shapes and sizes (literally as well). What instructors suit you best depends on how you look at it. There will be a lot of schools who have very young and inexperienced instructors. While this will probably mean there is room for progression and the opportunity for ex-students to become flight instructors, there is less experience to learn from as a student. You have to either accept this from the beginning or look for a flight school with more experienced instructors if that is more important to you.

As with the other variables, there are pros and cons with either option. If you have older, more experienced instructors who have probably flown all over the world and have flown over 10,000 hours throughout their careers, there will obviously be a wealth of experience to learn from as a student pilot.

The argument against this that you will find people say, is that often the younger men and women who choose to teach straight after flight school will have an easier time establishing a proper connection with students, as it’s easier to put themselves in your shoes and remember exactly what they struggled with themselves when they were a student only a few years ago.

It depends on which option you prefer personally, and you will probably notice that the schools who are tailor designed to have ‘flow’ in the system, where students become instructors, and instructors move on after a few years to other jobs, will therefore have younger, less experienced instructors. For bigger, and often more established schools with ties to big companies or airlines, they often have older / experienced instructors who chose to get into that after having had a full career of flying already. This applies to all instructors, whether they are instructing in the air or providing ground school.

5 STEP GUIDE

So here you are, looking to become a pilot. Whether it’s the fixed wing or rotary industry, these steps apply to both. Of course, the considerations will be slightly different, but the steps themselves are still the same. Here is a crystal clear 5 step plan to pick the best flight school for your goals and circumstances.

1) MAKE A LIST, A BIG ONE

The first thing you want to be doing is cast out a really big net. The quality of the choice you end up making will be significantly higher if you had more options to choose from. Create an excel spreadsheet and start researching what the options are for you. You could use websites such as Bestaviation.net to compare schools worldwide using relevant information you were not able to figure out by yourself.

In your spreadsheet, include all the variables we talked about and give them weight factors to get a picture of what the highest scoring options are to you.

2) ISOLATE THE TOP

Then it’s time to start isolating your top picks. Whether it’s 3, or 5, or 10. Prioritise what variables we discussed earlier are the most important to you, and rank the schools based on those variables. You should start to get an idea of what schools synergise the most with your priorities and goals.

For instance, if you are 100% confident after all your research that you do not want to leave the country for your flight training, then start isolating your local schools from global ones that require moving to a different country. If you have decided that in your circumstances, integrated is the way to go, remove the modular ones from your top picks. You should end up with a list of highly suitable schools that are tailored to your conditions and preferences.

3) CONTACT THE FLIGHT SCHOOLS

Now that you have a list of options that are serious candidates, it’s time to get some face to face meetings and actually visit the places you have shortlisted, especially if they happen to be relatively practical to travel to. Of courses, if it’s on the other side of the globe and you are not in a position yet where you can easily say ‘let’s just go there for a few days’ based on finances, time or any other variables, you’ll have to weigh off the pros and cons for a visit.

The reason visiting is so important is because it lets you actually experience what the training environment is like, you can talk to the students, the instructors, speak to the people in charge, and even visit places on the same airfield to get a rough idea of the school’s local reputation. Some schools offer open days where you can meet other aspiring student pilots as well, but make sure you talk to individual people already at the school as well.

Are the students happy, do they get the resources they need? Do the instructors look well rested and do they inspire motivation, or do they look like they want to drive home and never come back? What are the facilities like? If a school doesn’t have the discipline to keep their facilities clean and tidy, how can they have the discipline to operate to the highest standard?

Speak to the people in charge, try to get a feel for what their overall motivations are besides money. Any flight school’s primary objective is likely to be money, but there are other aspects to operating a flight school than money. Some airlines have their own training schools to provide them with an effortless stream of students that are already used to the company culture and procedures, but there are load of other motivations for having a flight school, try and get a feel for this.

You might meet people who genuinely have a passion for teaching and flight instruction, but there will also be people who are just there as a ‘stepping stone’ and will be out the door as soon as they get the chance. Getting a feel for this atmosphere will tell you loads about the place where you are about to spend a mortgage amount worth of money.

4) FIND OUT THE DETAILS

Are there any upfront costs? Is the school pushing additional courses on you that you are not clear of what their value is exactly? Some students don’t want t be a nuisance and just go with whatever the school tells them they should invest in. Are those investments based on actual opportunities, or is it just a money making scheme?

Find out tangible details of how your career progression would change based on getting X or Y qualification at that school. Sometimes schools have contracts with other companies that will take on people based on getting certain performance grades and qualifications: find out what and why.

If you are looking to become a flight instructor there, find out what the average student to instructor ratio is. If there are 8 instructors for each student that comes through the door, life as instructor is going to be more difficult than if there are more students per instructor.

Do they work on a freelance basis or are they employed full time? If you are passionate about teaching and flying, none of this matters too much, but every extra bit of useful information can help you make a more informed decision.

5) MAKE YOUR DECISION

When making your decision, make sure as many external variables as possible are reviewed before jumping in. Accommodation, a training contract, promises and expectations from both the student and academy’s perspective. As long as all the details are on the table, there won’t be any surprises during times when you should be putting all your mental capacity and time into striving for being the absolute best you can be during your training.

CONCLUSION

So there we have it, a full guide to figuring out the ins and outs for your best flight school. Please keep in mind that all of these tips and other information is based on my own experience, research and perspective of colleagues and friends in the industry and may vary in different parts of the world. Either way, invest time in finding your flight school, and give it 100%.

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