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 schools in the UK – and I’m afraid that this only applies to the UK, so if you’re elsewhere in the world, skip this box-out!

Types of flying school

In order to teach people how to fly, an instructor must be properly qualified to teach, and must be part of an organisation that has been given permission to provide training – even if that organisation is just one person.

The UK’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), recognises two types of flying school.

Declared Training Organisations (DTOs)

DTOs are generally smaller schools and may even consist of just one instructor. They are approved by the CAA to deliver training only for private licenses such as the LAPL and PPL, and private ratings which allow night flying or aerobatics.

Approved Training Organisations (ATOs)

ATOs are approved to deliver a wider range of courses. They can still offer all of the courses that the DTOs do, but in addition they can teach on twin engine aircraft and for Instructor and Instrument Ratings. Some ATOs also offer training towards Commercial licences. As they are generally larger more complex organisations, they are subject to more oversight by the CAA.

It’s important to note that the difference between DTOs and ATOs only reflects the type of flying that they are permitted to deliver, and the processes that they need to have in place to support the complexity of that training. It is not a reflection of the quality of training, and many DTOs are excellent training environments with exceptional staff.

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 Not only will this allow you to get up-to-date information (some clubs have out of date, or even non-existent websites) but it will also afford you the chance to see the aircraft you’ll be flying, and meet the instructors who will be teaching you.

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

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.

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.

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

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 Instructor, 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 in one block, 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 excitement of being around aircraft 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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