Which flying school?

How do you know which flying training provider is the right one for you?

Once you’ve decided that you want to learn to fly, you need a flying training organisation that will deliver the training you require, to do the kind of flying that you want to do.

But before you even approach a flying school, it is important to first make a distinction between the two main forms of flying training available to you; Modular training and Integrated training.

Modular training is a simple way of describing the progression through the various stages of flying license, en-route to the award of the Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL). This training route will require you to complete a Private Pilot License (PPL) before progressing on to any further commercial or instrument licenses such as the Commercial Pilot License (CPL) or Instrument Rating (IR). This is a very cost-effective way of training, and you can stop at any time when you reach the level of license that you require. If you are interested in gaining a license purely for leisure-time flying and have no wish to become a commercial aviator, then you will only need to get a Private Pilot License (PPL). A Light Aircraft Pilot License (LAPL) or National Private Pilot License (NPPL), both of which are less onerous to gain and maintain than a PPL, might meet your needs.

A flying school at a small airfield. Lloyd Horgan photo.

If it’s a career in aviation that you are training towards, then you have a decision to make; you can still take the modular route, and begin by attaining your PPL, or you can embark on a course of integrated training – a continuous course that culminates in the award of a CPL with a Multi-Engine (ME) IR and, in most cases, a Multi-Crew Cooperation certificate (MCC) which certifies that you are capable of operating an aircraft that requires more than one pilot. 

Integrated training is likely to cost you in the region of £100,000 which might even be as a lump sum and the structure of many of them still means that you alone carry the risk of failure. You would be well advised to look carefully at the cost implications of whatever training you decide to do, but a list of general pros and cons is available in the boxout.

Whether you decide on a modular or an integrated course, you will need to find an Approved Training Organisation (ATO). This is CAA/EASA speak for a flying club or school that meets the required standard to offer flying instruction, and ATOs can vary in size from a small flying club to an international flying school, though the larger schools offering integrated courses tend to have a very well-oiled and often selective recruitment process. For this reason, we offer advice focussed on, but certainly not exclusive to, those pursuing modular training.

Integrated training classrooms like this one at Stapleford Flight Centre tend to cater for courses of several students. SFC photo.

So head over to our resources site and use the search tools to find the flying schools that are within the area you are prepared to travel to do your flying. Once you’ve got that list, it’s time to…

Visit your local schools

We highly recommend visiting your local flying schools in person. Not only will this allow you to get up-to-date information (some clubs have out of date, or even non-existent websites) but it will also afford you the chance to see the aircraft you’ll be flying, and meet the instructors who will be teaching you.

As a newcomer to aviation, walking into a flying school for the first time can be quite an intimidating experience. Bear in mind that, particularly in smaller schools, there may not be a dedicated reception staff and it may not be immediately clear who is in charge, or the right person to speak to. Once you have spoken to somebody about your interest in flying lessons, don’t be shy about engaging other club members in conversation. A good club or school should have a vibrant clubhouse or crewroom atmosphere where people trade knowledge and ideas freely; it’s a key mechanism by which safety can be maintained. An enthusiastic welcome from existing members is a good sign that you will be well supported in the future.

Well-kept facilities and aircraft like these at Hields Aviation are generally a good sign. Lloyd Horgan photo.

Many flying clubs (even some larger ones) exist on razor thin margins and a lot of good work in General Aviation is done by volunteers; in a few cases the instructors will not be making any money for their time. Clearly things like fuel and maintenance must be paid for, and in smaller clubs these will rightly take priority over luxury. Even if the clubhouse is a little shabby, a clean and tidy building speaks to a membership that takes pride in what it has, and a similar mentality will likely prevail in the husbandry of its aircraft. Well looked-after aircraft tend to be more reliable.

While you have a few moments, take a look around the building, particularly at the notice boards. A club with a positive safety culture will have at least one or two flight-safety related posters on the walls, and notifications of social events are further evidence of a healthy relationship between members and a good flow of knowledge and information. Do be careful not to let your initial impressions run away with you, however. Whatever the condition of the buildings, or indeed the aircraft, General Aviation in the UK relies on the knowledge and enthusiasm of its participants; and they are a diverse bunch. The older gentleman nursing a cuppa on the clubhouse sofa might be an ex-RAF fighter pilot, or they may just be a latecomer to the game. Likewise, the twenty-something woman walking around the taildragger outside could well be an aerobatics guru preparing the aircraft for her next student.

Meet the people

Any organised flying training provider should have a Chief Flying Instructor (CFI), Head of Training, or some similarly titled figurehead. In short, unless you are retaining a freelance instructor, somebody should be in charge and you should seek out that person and ask them for the details about gaining your PPL. Be wary of any companies that apply any pressure for you to pay for your entire course of flying, particularly on your first visit to the club or school. Any potential recipient of your hard-earned cash should be more interested in your flying aspirations than enrolling you during your first visit. Many flying training organisations do, perfectly honestly, offer reduced flying rates if you buy ‘blocks’ of hours. This makes good sense, but we strongly advise against handing over a large sum of money for a complete course of flying training – especially before you have had at least a trial lesson.

Take the opportunity to ask questions of whoever is showing you around about the club, and don’t be shy about asking to see the aircraft. Most clubs will make their pricing schedule very clear, but it’s worth knowing a few basics. Aircraft for training will usually be hired ‘wet’, i.e. the fuel is included in the price. However some clubs may hire ‘dry’ and in this case you will have to pay the fuel costs on top of the aircraft hire rate. Also, ask whether the aircraft are charged ‘brakes off to brakes on’, whereby you will pay for time spent taxiing the aircraft, as well as time in the air, or ‘take-off to landing’ where you pay purely for the flying time. This may seem inconsequential, but at a large airfield, particularly early in your training, time on the ground waiting to take off can be significant. Bear in mind also what you intend to do after you have completed your PPL when you can fly solo. Does the club or school offer further development or training, such as aerobatics or additional ratings? If you intend to fly further afield, and will need to rent an aircraft for weekends or longer, do the club allow theirs to be hired for this purpose and are there minimum prices involved?

Don’t forget to check out the aircraft while you are visiting. Hields Aviation photo.

A lot of your decision whether or not to fly with a training provider will come down to how you ‘feel’ about the place, and its atmosphere. Bear in mind that flying is intoxicating! Don’t let the atmosphere cloud your judgement. The most important factor by far, however, is that you are comfortable in the learning environment. You should, particularly early in your training, spend a good deal of time at the club or school, and having the confidence to ask those around you for advice or help will be invaluable. By all means have a trial flight and enjoy the views and the experience, particularly if it is your first flight in a light aircraft – you will remember it forever. If you do choose to fly, engage your instructor in conversation; a good instructor will naturally build a rapport with you by talking to you about the aeroplane and should take the time to fully answer any questions that you have. However, only you can decide whether they are the right instructor for you – and in the next part of this series we’ll discuss how to do just that.

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