In our Which Flying School guide, we focussed on choosing the best location to learn to fly and talked at length about the different types of flying training organisations and their various characteristics. Now we focus on the tangible assets that a club possesses; aircraft.
We will look in detail at what characterises a good training aircraft, why the most popular aircraft may not meet all of those requirements, and what other choices are available for those on different budgets.
Designing, building, testing and certifying a new aircraft is an expensive and time-consuming business, even for large manufacturers like Cessna or Piper. While the home-built market is awash with novel designs, the certified sector is forced to be somewhat more conservative in order to comply with as many international aviation authority certification criteria as possible. For these reasons very few aircraft manufacturers produce an aircraft specifically designed to train new pilots; an aircraft they could only really sell to flying training organisations.
Manufacturing companies prefer to market their touring and utility aircraft as trainers for many reasons. They have a much wider market for the same aircraft, and new pilots are much more likely to buy an aircraft in which they learned to fly and with which they are most familiar. This limits the choice of aircraft available for a rookie aviator to learn in, and most common ‘trainers’ are actually designed for touring long distances.
Unfortunately, what makes a good tourer; stability, a wide Centre of Gravity envelope, comprehensive avionics and good cruise fuel economy, does not necessarily marry up to the specification of an ideal training aircraft, in which visibility should be good, and it should be possible to demonstrate the recovery technique for any number of situations that new pilots may find themselves in during their flying career. This brings us on to the most common types used for training.
The Usual Suspects
If you visit an ATO in the UK, the chances are that they will either use Cessna 150/152 or increasingly 172 aircraft, or one of the low-wing Piper PA-28 line-up. Although all of these fit into the category of touring aircraft, they do have benefits. They are easy to handle and free from vices when within their normal operating envelope, as well as being well-understood. They are also relatively cheap to run and maintain compared to more modern tourers such as the Cirrus range.
They have their pitfalls though, one of which I have already eluded to; they are designed as touring aircraft and (with the exception of one specific type from Cessna) lack any capability to demonstrate fully developed spins, aerobatics or genuinely unusual attitudes. They are also extremely ponderous and heavy on the controls, a function of their designed stability, which makes learning to fly with finesse or instinct very difficult indeed. That said, they are simple to fly, and in widespread use, making up the majority of aircraft available to hire for recently qualified PPLs. This helps to keep the cost of flying down by reducing the need for conversion to a different type after the award of your License. Piper aircraft used for training typically have low-wings while Cessnas are generally high-wing machines. While this generates much conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of each, the chances are that they will make little difference to a novice pilot and either with provide you with a suitable start to your flying career.
Not every flying club operates these staple varieties. Many are now making the move towards lighter, more economical types. These include aircraft such as the Evektor EV-97 Eurostar and Aquila A211, which are both certified under EASA’s CS-VLA category as ‘Light Sport Aircraft’.
While this places limitations on weight, seating and speed, they are nevertheless entirely capable of catering for the full PPL(A) syllabus. The benefits of Very Light Aircraft are that with reduced weight comes a reduced requirement for thrust, and therefore the cost of training in them is typically lower than even the two-seat Cessna and Piper varieties.
A few clubs offer training at the other end of the cost spectrum. At least one, Cambridge Aero Club, offers a complete PPL(A) on the Extra 200 – the slightly smaller cousin of the Extra 300 series of aerobatic aircraft. This is probably too specialist for all of the PPL(A) syllabus, but for somebody training in that club’s fleet of Cessna aircraft, a couple of hours in a properly aerobatic type adds immeasurable value.
Aerobatic aircraft like this are certainly capable of demonstrating advanced manoeuvres that would otherwise be impossible in the usual training fleet. This allows new pilots to see these situations and to practice the recovery actions safely. The more dynamic flying will also improve their confidence.
Other unusual types that you might see offered for training include historic aircraft like the de Havilland DH.82 Tiger Moth. While it is possible to do a full PPL on these types, it is worth bearing in mind what you want to fly with your license and how much flying you envisage doing.
If vintage aircraft and tail-draggers are your thing, then it is a perfectly valid (if rather expensive) starting point. If however, your aspirations extend to touring with family members or friends, then a more representative machine in one of the other categories is likely to better suit your needs. You can always get your tail-dragger rating later on when you are ready for a challenge!
If you are training with an integrated school, then your options will of course be limited to the training fleet that your organisation provides. However, the capability of the course to prepare its students for employment is usually a much higher priority. Considerations about the aircraft should therefore be weighted towards how well they will prepare you for commercial types. ‘Glass cockpit’ avionics are favoured, and it might also be worth considering the similarity of cockpit architecture and avionics logic between the single-engine and multi-engine fleet, as this will reduce the brain-power you need to expend learning new controls on top of new flying skills. The Aircraft DA-40 and DA-42 are a good example of this, and they share the Garmin G1000 suite, which is a popular choice of avionics in light aircraft.
Many of the current light aircraft training fleet are powered by engines that have their genesis in designs from the middle of the last century. While these have proven reliable, they could not be called particularly efficient nor environmentally friendly. The aerospace industry is now looking towards the potential of electric propulsion to help reduce its carbon footprint, and while electric-powered airliners are a long way off, smaller power plants are already proving their utility in small aircraft. Both Rolls Royce and Safran, the two major engine manufacturers in Europe, have electric light aircraft engines under development, and the latter has been selected to power the Bye Aerospace eFlyer. While this two-seater looks similar to other existing trainers, it is a clean sheet design which the company say will change the way that pilots train.
For the time being however, most prospective pilots will face a choice that many before them have made. That choice could be characterised as high-wing versus low-wing; Piper versus Cessna; or even the ‘old guard’ versus the ‘new lightweights’. If you’re learning to fly with a view to buying your own aircraft, this might influence your decision, but when all is said and done, any of the above will teach you what you need to know to become competent enough to complete a PPL. Once you’ve cleared that hurdle, you can start learning enough to understand which aircraft you enjoy flying the most.