The Tough Choices:
Picking a Flight School,
Picking an Instructor

Budd Davisson, as appeared in Flight Training Magazine

The flight school and instructor you chose will have long lasting effects

What person in our lives has the longest lasting effect? Our parents usually head the list but, when it comes to flying, your first instructor fills that same role. He or she lays down the bricks that form the foundation for your skill and you build upon that foundation for the rest of your years in the air. Most pilots never out-live the effect of that first flight instructor, which can be good or bad news. For that reason, finding an instructor who is both good and perfectly matched to your learning style is the single most important decision you’ll make in aviation and it should be treated accordingly.

All of that having been said, the next couple of questions are obvious: first, what is the definition of good instruction and second, how do you go about finding that instructor?

Notice that so far we haven’t mentioned “flight school” and have dealt entirely with the instructor, even though the instructor usually (but not always) comes bundled with a flight school. On the surface it would appear as if they are a package—if you want an instructor, you first have to decide, which flight school. To a certain extent, that is absolutely true. However, as we begin to discuss picking a flight school, bear in mind that the whole process is going to come down to picking an instructor because, in the final analysis, it’s the instructor, not the flight school that interfaces with you the most and is the conduit through which learning flows.

Good instructors can be found anywhere, both in and out of flight schools, but instructors generally work for schools, because the schools are a steady source of students. However, the way in which different schools staff their flight training departments bears a little discussion.

Some flight schools, especially those specializing in training airline candidates, generate their own flight instructors: they take those who have graduated from their CFI training program and put them on line as instructors. In some schools it’s a formalized plan where those instructors stay with the school until they have around 1,500 hours total time (about 1000 as instructors), by which time they have their ATP and move on to the airlines or other higher paying job. Let’s examine that process.

First, what I’m about to say (which is not the opinion of the magazine) is probably going to generate some letters, but hear me out. When a school builds their instructional staff using their own graduates, both good and bad things can happen and the prospective student needs to know that. The advantages are:
            • The instructors will have uniform training that reflects the school’s standards
            • They will probably all use the same teaching methods
            • They will all have the same experience level within a very narrow range (zero to a thousand hours of dual given).

The disadvantages are:
            • The uniformity of their training means the school’s standards had better be high because these instructors will be passing knowledge on in a rote fashion because they haven’t seen any other ways of instructing.
            • A “cookie cutter” form of methodology in a strict school environment, again, had better be right because it doesn’t give as much flexibility for individual instructors to develop their own innate instructional skills.
            • Of necessity, cycling through instructors so often means that a high percentage of the instructors will be quite new and their students won’t benefit from the tricks of the trade that only experience teaches. Also, just about the time the instructors have flown with enough different students and begin to get their sea legs, they will automatically move on.
            • In this kind of instructional environment, a higher percentage of the instructors are passing through on the way to greater things, so there’s the probability there will be a few instructors who are simply building time and may, or may not, be taking instructing seriously. This, by the way, is a problem through out the instructional community and isn’t unique to this kind of school.

Alright now, before you fire up the e-mail nastygram program let’s make it clear that this is not a universal indictment of that kind of system, as it has been used for decades by flight training academies and even though they are quite often working with extremely low time instructors, they turn out good students. Also, there’s nothing that says a young instructor can’t be great and an old one tired and lazy. It always comes down to the commitment of the individual instructor and the skill he or she brings to the table. Experience, however, is experience and…well…it teaches things you don’t find in the books. Enough said on that subject.

In terms of picking a school, quite often you don’t have many choices because you’re in a smaller town with one airport and one operation that probably teaches flying as a sideline and may only have one instructor. We’ll get into the instructor evaluation later, but suffice it to say if that instructor doesn’t appear to be the guy you want to interface with, you’d be better off driving an hour to the next airport where there are more choices than flying with him. It’s better to put off learning to fly, than learn to fly with the wrong instructor.

Assuming there are several flighttraining companies locally then there are some specifics you want to evaluate about each.

            Proximity. Because all of our lives suffer from a general lack of time, there’s a tendency to home in on the closest airport and there’s good reason for that: if you have to drive a long distance, you’ll schedule fewer lessons. However, balance that against having the right instructor, in the right airplane at the right airport and consider the drivetime an investment.

            Airport type. Bigger, busier airports obviously mean a more complicated learning environment. Smaller, grassroots fields often breed a friendlier, warm and fuzzy learning experience. However, a big airport often means a pilot isn’t comfortable on shorter runways and a smaller airport often means the pilot isn’t comfortable flying into high density airports. Also, big airports will always be more expensive than smaller ones. However, the quality of the school and instructor should drive your decision and that’s not dependent on the airport.

            School size. Generally, the bigger the school, the more standardized the instruction will be and the prices higher. However, it still comes down to the instructor. Bigger schools often, but not always, pay their instructors more, so they stay longer. Also, bigger, busier schools quite often operate newer better airplanes. All of the foregoing is why the prices are higher, but none of it means you’ll get better instruction from a larger school.

            School reputation. Check out the school’s reputation by talking to graduates. Do they report that the school actually cares or are they processing students like a chicken farm: the more the merrier. Also find out whether they have a high instructor turnover (says something about their management and pay levels) and what their general attitude is toward their students.
            School longevity and payment system. Find out how responsible they are financially and how long they’ve been around. Don’t pre-pay to a newly established school or one with a shady reputation

            Type and quality of aircraft. Condition, more than age, is the critical factor in evaluating a training fleet and high-wing versus low wing is strictly a personal preference. Although flying newer airplanes is a good thing, that doesn’t mean a fleet of clean, well maintained birds from the ‘60’s and 70’s is a bad thing. Give points for an operation that keeps their airplanes clean (not raggedy looking), inside and out, as this is an indication of their general attitude toward their hardware.
            Instructor pool. Evaluating a flight instructing staff isn’t easy because young isn’t necessarily bad and old isn’t necessarily good. The same thing is true of part time, versus full time instructors, and the difficult thing is that you can’t really evaluate a given instructor until flying with him or her. About the best you can do is get recommendations for given instructors from graduates.
What about instructors who freelance and aren’t part of a structured school? This quite often works well but there are some realities here that have to be looked at carefully. Although the freelancer has the potential of being an instructor who works with you on a more personal basis and can give you more face time, it has to be recognized that, if he isn’t doing this as a full time free lancer, then he has other time commitments and scheduling can become difficult. Here again, ask for recommendations from former students. One area where free lancers really work out well is in secondary training such as instrument instruction, endorsements, BFR’s etc because the time commitment is for a shorter period of time. They also work out best, if you are training in your own aircraft. Formal schools would rather instruct you in their airplane, not yours.

When it comes right down to evaluating an instructor, once you’ve checked around for an instructor’s reputation, there’s really no way to tell how he’s going to work for you until you strap into an airplane with him or her. Some times in the first hour you can tell if there’s a problem between the two of you, but that’s seldom the case. Much more often it’ll take a few hours for you to gain a sense of whether he knows his subject, is capable of transferring the information in a way that works for you and, above all, really cares that you learn right. An instructor’s passion for what he is doing floats right on the surface and, of all the factors you are looking for, that is not only the most obvious but also the most important.

If you sense an instant mis-match with an instructor, don’t wait too long to bail out and go looking for another instructor. Waiting too long not only means you may be picking up bad information but will leave a bad taste in your mouth about flight training. If it’s not working, it’s not working and it’s time to move on.

Even before getting in the cockpit, have mental check list ready and tick off the items as you go through that first lesson:

            The instructor as a person.   Before even getting in the cockpit, there are lots of little clues about an instructor that tell you about his professionalism. Is he clean and neat? Does he appear to have some personal pride? Is he concise in his scheduling, and above all, is he punctual? An instructor never has a right to be late, although, once in the air it sometimes takes a lot of effort to maintain that schedule. An instructor who is habitually late disrespects his students.

            Personal interaction.  A student/instructor relationship is a form of marriage because you’re cooped up in a tiny space, doing something very intense and a lot of understanding is needed on his part. He has to work on making that relationship work. No one, for instance, needs a screamer in the right seat. You also have to evaluate his ability to communicate and his ability to empathize with you: does he understand you enough to see when you’re drowning in new information and he needs to change his tact. And lastly, is the chemistry between the two of you working? Bad chemistry always results in a bad and ineffective learning experience and is the primary reason for looking elsewhere.

            His interest level in you and the learning experience.  The ideal educator of any kind is one who takes a personal interest in you and what you’re learning. How do you evaluate that? You don’t. It’s one of those things you sense. Subliminally, you know when someone is truly interested in you and how you’re doing and you’ll do much better with an instructor who gives you good vibes in that area than one that you feel is just warming the right seat.
                        Preparation. There are two indications an instructor is unprepared and is winging it with you (pun intended): he hustles you into the airplane with no pre-flight briefing and, once in the airplane says, “Remind me what we covered last time.” Every flight should begin with a precise review of the last flight, what was right and what was wrong, what you’re going to do on this flight to fix that and what you’re going to cover that’s new. Then, after the flight, it is verbally re-flown to make sure you understand what just transpired and what your good and bad points were. You want to leave the airport with a firm understanding of what you need to be thinking about before the next flight. Otherwise, too much of each hop is wasted.

It’s really unfortunate that flight instructing is usually seen as the mailroom of aviation: it’s the entry level position everyone wants to transition through as quickly as possible. It is only in the major flight academies that pay scales and working conditions make flight instructing look like a true profession where a person can build a career and, therefore, can invest more of themselves in it. Even so, there are instructors and small flight schools who take what they do very seriously and really work to give a good aeronautical education. Its up to you, and well worth the effort, search those out.  It’s an investment in time that will pay dividends the rest of your life. BD

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