You have decided you want to become a pilot, but now you have to answer one key question: where should I study?
There are many things to take into account to find a flight school that suits your needs. Failing to do adequate research could result in poor training, personal hassle, and even the complete loss of your investment. We offer you here a guide on how to choose the best flight school, with some of the most common mistakes people make and how you can avoid them:
The place where you are going to be spending the next couple of years is the single most important choice you have to make. It conditions three main areas that will affect your training and career:
First, it influences the type of license you will eventually get. Every country and world region has different aviation authorities, and every license is accepted by only a certain number of countries. The most well-recognised licenses in the world are EASA, in Europe, and FAA, in the US, but there are many others. Keep in mind that the license you have will determine where can you work in your future career: an EASA license will not be directly accepted if you are planning to fly for a US airline, and an FAA license will not be accepted in Europe either.
Some regions accept some licenses from third countries, but there are normally limitations on the state of registry of the aircraft or the state of operation. Outside of those cases, flying in a different country may require you to convert your license to that of the country you want to fly in. While doable, that process can be both expensive and time-consuming, since it may involve a combination of paperwork, theoretical examinations, flight training, and skill tests. To make things more complicated, not every conversion is the same: FAA ATPL to EASA ATPL will be different than EASA to FAA. Therefore, it is wise to choose properly according to the place you would eventually like to be working in.
Weather is a second paramount factor that depends on the location. It will determine the pace of your training, since it limits the number of days you can fly, in both the visual and instrument flight phases. Unstable weather, with frequent storms and cumulus clouds, is a problem due to wind, rain showers and icing, whereas stable but cloudy weather means low ceilings with bad visibility, which can be problematic during the visual flight phases. On the temperature side, cold weather will cause icing problems at altitude, while very hot weather will limit the performance of the aircraft.
Bad weather will possibly delay your training and cause frequent halts, requiring more dedication to stay on top of things, as well as costing you more money, both in living costs and opportunity costs.
The best weather for flight training is a combination of a stable atmosphere, clear or scattered skies and a medium temperature range throughout the year.
Airport, living costs and social life
Some last factors that will greatly affect your chosen location are the living costs and the general atmosphere and culture of the place. An average integrated ATPL can last for 1.5 to 2 years, and modular training even more. The difference between an expensive country and an affordable one can be many thousands of euros over that period, added to the already different course price. Furthermore, flight training is very demanding, and you want to be comfortable and fit in with the people around you while you rest in order to be able to focus on your progress properly.
The airport itself is will also play a big role in your training. A good amount of nearby traffic, while initially daunting, will give you confidence with communications and situational awareness from the start, whereas a calm place in the middle of nowhere could deceive you to be complacent.
Therefore, to summarise, you ideally want to select a location that will offer you a well-recognised licence that allows you to operate where you want to be based in the future, with fair weather and mild temperatures, low living costs and an attractive and open culture.
Now that you have chosen a region to perform your training, it’s time to start researching the schools in the area. One first filter to apply is the course options that they offer. Determine whether you prefer integrated or modular training, and make a list of the schools that offer such courses. Keep in mind that, for a modular path, you need to find schools for every single one of the courses (PPL, ATPL theory, time building, night rating, IFR, etc.), while a single school with an integrated course will be enough.
If you are a non-native English speaker, depending on your current level, you may be tempted to choose a school in your own local language. If that is the case, reconsider it seriously. English is the language of aviation, and of pretty much everything, for that matter. Every pilot is required to achieve an ICAO level 4 in English language proficiency, with 6 being the highest possible.
Learning a complex topic in a language you don’t fully master can sound daunting, but it will make your career easier in the long run. After you finish your training, you will go to interviews and be paired with flight crew members that come from very different countries and speak different languages. You need to be used to it and have excellent command and fluency by then. Avoiding this now will only delay the process, and become more difficult as you age up and/or seriously limit your future career opportunities.
While a flight school is not the place to learn a language from scratch, being immersed in an all-English course, with people from all over the world, will definitely boost your confidence, comprehension and speaking skills. Moreover, getting to know different people and cultures is enriching and fascinating!
Of course, price will be a decisive factor as well. Flying is expensive, and there is generally no way around it. Scholarships exist, but they are very rare and coveted, and you need not only talent and dedication, but also very good luck. Therefore, as in almost everything, you need to find a balance between the price and the quality of the fleet, staff and organisation. Extremely cheap schools may signal an ageing fleet, lack of resources or proper maintenance, but in a highly expensive one you will most likely be overpaying for a similar experience. Make sure you understand what a school offers to see if it is worth paying more or less.
Pay close attention to what’s included in those courses. Additional costs for the training material, medical certificate or examination fees are not uncommon, so make sure you plan ahead to not find yourself out of money in the middle of your journey towards the right seat. If you are taking a loan to pay for this, make sure you will be able to pay it back even if it takes you a bit longer to find a job as a pilot. Having a backup job plan and/or some savings will definitely help.
Last, but not least, if you are going through the integrated route, make sure they let you pay in small instalments. This way you will be protected from unforeseen circumstances, as you will be paying progressively for the training you are receiving at the time.
Fleet and safety
One major difference between flight schools is the fleet. Generally, look for modern aircraft, as they will have fewer maintenance issues. Some schools offer cheap courses in very old airplanes, sometimes 50+ years old, which may have frequent problems and be grounded too often. Having a glass cockpit, while not essential, will also ease the transition to modern aircraft once you finish, and they are generally easier and more comfortable to fly.
The size of the fleet is also important, because a very small one will be more subject to fluctuations in availability due to maintenance and student demand. Furthermore, a standardised fleet will make the transition between different flight phases smoother.
Lastly, signs of use are normal, but watch out for obvious external and internal defects, as they could signal bad maintenance or careless operation. If you have a chance, get a look at their maintenance hangars, since the overall impression will give you a hint of how careful and methodic their work is.
Atmosphere and quality of training
During Open Days, ask students, ground and flight instructors, as well as other staff members about their overall satisfaction with the school. What they say, and also how they say it, will reveal how much the company cares about its clients and workers, and you will be able to judge, even slightly, the quality and standardisation of training. Don’t hesitate to ask tough questions, and make sure you don’t go back home with doubts.
Besides, feeling at ease is very important to be able to complete your training in the best possible way. After all, you are going to spend the next couple of years with great dedication, and being surrounded by like-minded, passionate people will make it much easier and enjoyable.
Higher price doesn’t equal higher quality
One common error is thinking that a more expensive school will immediately give you better training. But newer aircraft, which is the main investment a school can make, is only one part of it. A good training structure can’t be bought, and neither can trust or a genuine interest in the overall quality of the school and its continuous improvement. Make sure to look at the whole picture, how customers and employees are treated and what the overall feeling about the school you have.
“Guaranteed” career opportunities
Some schools offer you promising placements within an airline when you finish your training. And while under some circumstances those airlines may indeed be willing to select new entrants from a pool of previously agreed schools, there is hardly ever a guarantee to get a job at the end of your training. A drop in demand or increase in competition could lead you astray, as we have experienced during the recent pandemic.
Similarly, some schools offer you flight instructor positions when you finish your training. Instructing is indeed a great way to build your hours when you get your licence, since you will learn a lot from watching others and having to explain things to them. But keep in mind that a usual instructor-to-student ratio is about 5 or 6, and not every person is equally suitable for teaching. This means that not every student can eventually become an instructor, since there are simply not enough vacancies. Any school that promises you a job before you even start your training is not being honest with you.
Choosing the right pilot school is a very big step for your aviation career. A great training experience will make you a better pilot, quicker and spending less money, while a bad one can completely ruin your motivation and bank account. Any aspiring pilot should take a few points into account:
- Make deep research about your training options and possible flight schools. If you are reading this, you are already doing it properly, but don’t forget to visit their facilities and talk to current and/or past students and instructors.
- Choose the location wisely, as it will make your training easier, more affordable, and enjoyable.
- Find the right balance between price and quality.
- Choose an all-English training program. You will benefit hugely from it!
- Be suspicious of fancy promises, especially regarding future employment.