There is a tendency to consider two things when you are looking for the best flight schools.
These factors are:
Distance to the school from one’s home
Cost of flight training.
Without a doubt these are factors to consider but they are only two among a host of factors that can affect how the flight training that you receive will translate into a position as an airline pilot or other professional pilot position.
Cost of professional flight training is a factor. That is a given. There may be some issues related to cost that can influence your decision. Among those include whether your intended flight training facility can help find financing or accept GI Bill flight training benefits.
Distance to a flight school is not usually a crucial factor because there are so few professional flight schools. If you live near enough to commute each day to one of them that may present a compelling benefit. For most people a “flight school near me” isn’t an issue.
Assuming that the perfect school for you is not across town, let’s move on to the other factors that should be considered. We will begin with how geography and weather can affect flying training.
How does weather affect flight training schools?
The conventional wisdom, which may not be the best consideration, says go to sunny Florida or Arizona.
I would like to propose an alternative set of considerations. It goes without saying that it is more pleasant and productive to receive flight training in the South. It is not necessarily true, however, that it is wise to learn to fly where weather is almost perfect as it is in Florida or Arizona. Why? As a professional pilot student you will need weather good enough to dispatch on your flight lessons without numerous delays or being unduly uncomfortable due to cold. At the same time you should be able to train and practice in cloudy conditions. As a professional pilot myself, I can attest to the reality that there is a big difference in training for instrument flight using a vision restricting cap and having real clouds in which to fly and perform instrument approaches. “Real” instrument approaches are much better than “practice” instrument approaches in perfect weather. Therefore look for flight training in those places where weather is “favorable” but not always perfect.
Should your school be in a big city or in a small one?
From a point of view of cost, flight training in a small town with an uncontrolled airport would be best. But, cost is not the only important factor in your decision.
It is true that with no airport control tower you will pay for less aircraft rental and instruction time. Why? Where there is a control tower there are usually more airplanes using that airport and the “tower” must be consulted for all airplane movement on the ground and must give permission to return to the airport for landing after your practice in the air. That “control” also is a bit time consuming.
If you live in a small town and you are learning to fly for recreational purposes in and around that town then the lack of an air traffic control tower is ideal. If you are learning to fly with the intention of becoming a professional pilot, who will be doing the vast majority of flight in a controlled airport environment, then choose a school at an airport that has an air traffic control tower.
Now consider that among aviation schools located at airports with control towers, there are still VERY important differences. The volume of traffic at the airport and the complexity of the airspace near the airport will affect how much money you spend needlessly waiting for clearance to take off or land.
Consider the airport at Greenville, South Carolina (KGMU). The airport has a control tower and you have the opportunity to file and receive an instrument flight plan clearance while on the ground (not usually possible at an uncontrolled airport). The volume of traffic is modest but significant enough to give good training. The area is urban but not so congested that you must fly 20 minutes to reach the visual flight practice area. Areas with especially congested airspace may force you to fly to practice areas for many extra minutes to get out of the way of commercial and business arrivals. Obvious examples of this would be in the Newark, New York, Miami, Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Atlanta or Los Angeles areas.
Greenville Downtown Airport has the organization and facilities of a larger airport without the disadvantages. One might look at a nice area like Savannah, Georgia but there is only one significant airport for practice. In Greenville there is Greenville Downtown airport, Donaldson Center and Greer International. All of these airports are within 15 minutes flying time of each other, offering numerous procedures for practice and all have control towers. As an added advantage, within 15 minutes flying time, there are numerous uncontrolled airports for practice. Some of the uncontrolled airports have instrument procedures that are especially nice when practicing instrument flight. Usually many more instrument procedures can be flown in the same amount of time at an uncontrolled airport than at one with a control tower
I can’t think of an area of the United States any better suited for professional flight training and multi engine training than Greenville.
Give extra points to a school that has its own maintenance staff.
A school that has its own maintenance staff can keep its fleet airworthy easier than a school that must compete with outside customers for the time of the mechanics.
Imagine that you go to your airplane and discover something you think may be a maintenance issue. If your school has no mechanic on staff, a contract mechanic must be called. In many cases it could even be the next day or later before a mechanic is dispatched to look at the problem. With a mechanic on the school staff, his or her first priority will be to enable the dispatch of the school airplanes for training.
Look at the demographics of the school management!
Ideally you would like for the owners of your professional flying school to be active in the day to day operations of the school. It would be especially advantageous for the owners to be professional pilot educators, with years of experience who actively work with the students.
Almost every school uses the model of hiring recent graduates to instruct new students. That is perfectly acceptable and, in fact, you should probably preference a flying school that will hire you to teach after you receive your flight instructor rating. That is the usual way to build the necessary 1500 flight hours needed to become an airline pilot.
If, however, the entire management team is on the ladder to become airline pilots, there is simply too much inexperience at the management and supervisory levels of the school. On the other hand if the owners are not part of the every day staff of the school, there is the possibility that real decision making occurs in a corporate office, sometimes hundreds of miles away. The best interests of the students can be instantly addressed if the decision makers are committed to flying training as a profession and are in the facility every day with the students. By being involved in the teaching and day to day operations of their school, an experienced management team/group of owners have a depth and breadth of flying experience that is constantly available to young instructors and students alike.
Now here is the icing on the cake. Look for a school that has an FAA designated flight examiner on the staff. A professional instructor who is also an FAA designated flight examiner gives even more depth to the staff.
While there is no favoritism given to students of that school by the designated examiner, he is familiar with the quality of the instructors and training procedures of that school. By having the examiner on staff, it is likely that the student will have even received some of their training from the examiner in his / her instructor role. It is always nicer to know that the check flight will be supervised by someone who is not a total stranger. Having the examiner on staff is also a valuable resource for student and instructor questions.
Could there possibly be ANYTHING else???
Why, YES! Yes, there can be. Let’s discuss the set of FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) rules under which the flight school operates and how that affects the quality and cost of your training.
Without becoming involved in numerous number designations (61 , 141, 135, etc) and unfamiliar terms, let’s talk about the practical differences of schools depending on the level of scrutiny given to them by the FAA.
At one level, part 61, flight schools are supervised by the FAA and flight hour minimums are established for students to complete various stages of professional flight training. At a higher level of supervision and more detailed syllabus planning (part 141), students may be allowed to complete the same stages of flight training in fewer hours, and at less cost, than students who train at a flight training facility that is not so designated by the FAA. In general, the more syllabus planning a school does and supervision by the FAA that a flying school invites, the FAA rewards that school, and its students, with a lower minimum number of hours to accomplish certain phases of flight training. So, you, the student are the beneficiary of the hard work that a school does to qualify, under FAA rules, to receive your licenses and ratings with less flying time and, therefore, less cost.
I have also noticed that the aircraft at a flight school that has the reduced flight hour requirements, also receive more attention from the FAA aircraft inspectors. That translates to safer aircraft for you to fly.
Now the last thing we will offer up as a consideration for finding the best flight schools!
Let’s look at life away from the school. There are so many cities in America that have good flight schools, ideal weather, (not perfect but not awful either), efficient airspace and a fantastic program BUT the city is deadly dull.
There must be life outside the flying training.
I have been a flight student in Miami, Florida which is pretty exciting but too big, too crowded and too expensive. I have been a flight student in Sumter, South Carolina but that town, as nice as it was, took the prize for being dull and in the middle of nowhere.
My home, and airplane, are located in Greenville, South Carolina. Greenville is one of the most dynamic, desirable cities in America. The airport where we have the airplane hangared is 5 minutes from a downtown that is loaded with cool restaurants and an unlimited supply of unique social venues. Nightlife is abundant in Greenville including 4 fantastic theater companies, a symphony, popular music venues along with Furman, Clemson, Bob Jones Universities and North Greenville University.
Speaking of universities, you should know that many professional pilot careers require an undergraduate, Bachelor’s degree. If you do not already have that degree, Greenville and any of the fine schools mentioned above, would be a great place to seek your degree and flight training at the same time.
The only school in America with which I am familiar that has ALL the check marks in the right places on this exhaustive list is USAeroFlight in Greenville, South Carolina at Greenville Downtown Airport (KGMU).
You could spend a lot of time reading and making site visits but this city and this school will serve you well in your quest for professional and multi engine flight training.
Where ever you decide to learn to fly, begin your training as soon as possible. The shortage of pilots is real and it will probably last for years but the sooner you complete your training and your degree will yield significant earnings and quality of life advantages in your aviation career.
Written By Steve Fowler
Steve is a professional pilot and flies the Airbus 330 for a legacy airline. His career has included recreational civilian flying during college and flying as a fighter pilot in the United States Air Force.
He owns and flies his Cessna 310 with his Private Pilot daughter, Casey.