If you want to learn to be a pilot, you’re going to need to find a flying school or club that suits you, and we recommend visiting a few before you make the important decision about who will teach you to fly.
There are many different flying clubs and schools all over the UK and the world, and they vary in both the services they offer and how they offer them. One thing that they all have in common for the outsider though, is that they represent a new environment. In small clubs particularly, this can feel like a big hurdle. So, here’s a rough lowdown on what to expect on your first visit to your local flying club or school.
We recommend you call the club or school that you intend to visit before you turn up. This will not only to ensure you know precisely how to find the correct place, but should also mean that somebody is expecting you, although with smaller clubs this is not guaranteed! With this in mind, phoning ahead will give you an opportunity to agree a time for your visit. Do your best to be on time and let them know if you need to reschedule. Flying school staff tend to hold a lot of different roles, so the chances are that whoever has agreed to host you has productive things they could be doing if you are not able to be there on time.
It’s not always easy to know where to go.
The flying club you visit might be down a dirt track miles away from the postcode where your GPS left you; buried in a rabbit warren among the industrial buildings of a municipal airfield; or even worryingly close to the parts of a major airport that you’re usually kept away from. Many airfields have poor mobile phone reception, so it’s a good idea to screenshot a map showing the precise location of your destination before you set off, along with any pertinent details such as a point of contact or security details.
Beware aircraft, obviously!
What might be less obvious is how to avoid them, as at some smaller airfields, cars and aircraft use the same routes to get about. Be extra vigilant for signs and follow their instructions carefully. Posts can be a hazard to aircraft so many of these signs are likely to be at ground level so keep your eyes peeled. Keep a good lookout generally too, as some aircraft can be surprisingly quiet, and the visibility from within them is often limited while they are on the ground. If in doubt; avoid aircraft, return to the last place you were certain was a road or parking space, and seek assistance. The people who work at airfields know it can be confusing and will be more than happy to help, but unless you ask they will just assume that you know what you are doing!
It might be down to you to break the ice…
Having taken the trouble to find the place and get parked, you might be surprised at the reception you don’t get. Many clubs and schools – particularly the larger ones – have their front of house very swept up and will be quick to identify the lost-looking visitors. In other places the atmosphere is much more club-like, which can leave visitors with a sense of hostility. However, the likelihood is that with few if any full-time staff, the ‘regulars’ are simply engaged in their own comings and goings and the day-to-day administration of flying. In addition, the buildings occupied by small flying schools tend not to have been built with customer experience in mind, so it might take some searching to find the reception. Don’t worry about ending up somewhere you shouldn’t. If in doubt, head for where the tea gets made. Pilots generally love drinking tea and eating so you’re sure to find someone there!
…but you’re not being wilfully ignored.
As you will find out once you start, flying takes a lot of concentration both during and before the bit in the aeroplane. Early on as a student pilot, this can be an engrossing experience and you may find people muttering unintelligibly to themselves under their breath or staring intently at what look like (and may actually just be) scraps of paper. Believe it or not, this is perfectly normal, but these people are probably still best left on their own. They’re not trying to put you off, or pretending to ignore you, they’re just trying hard to understand stuff that you too will be learning soon, and you’ll probably come to sympathise with them sooner than you think!
What’s in a name?
Aviation has a language all of its own and those words can be important. Similarly, it has a load of job titles and specific role names that while descriptive to those ‘in the know’, tend to just confuse people new to the game. It’s important for those training for a career in flying to learn how this system works, so job titles can sometimes seem very formal even at flying schools. As a newcomer, don’t let this phase you; everybody in that school should be happy to see you as a new student, so if in doubt, find an office with an open door and someone inside it, knock and introduce yourself. If you’ve got money in your pocket and want to talk about flying lessons, they’ll find time for you.
Don’t expect a flying visit.
What you choose to do on your first visit is entirely up to you, but we advise not planning to fly, for a few reasons. Your first flight is part of the training syllabus and while this doesn’t represent a formal commitment to continue training with that club or school, it does mean that finding the right training provider could end up being an expensive voyage of discovery! You will make little progress through the syllabus if you spend your first few flights trying different training providers. Training flights should also allow plenty of time before and afterwards to prepare and debrief. Your first training flight is no exception, even though it is only a familiarisation. In fact, a lot of aspects of the flight will need explaining and this could take a long time, which you then can’t spend evaluating your surroundings. First flights are also pretty intense experiences, so you may not be in the right frame of mind to make a dispassionate decision afterwards.
Take your time.
Recognise that your ability to learn effectively will depend on you being comfortable in the training environment. Take the time to look around and find out what the facilities are like and where everything is. Spend some time looking around the facilities and if you can find some other pilots with time to kill, ask them what they like about flying there.
Finally, once you’ve found a flying school or club that suits you, book yourself in for your familiarisation flight. The next time you visit, you will be going flying!