What makes a good flight school?

December 22, 2008 by Mike Collins

A conversation over lunch turned to flight schools as a fellow pilot talked about the poor customer service he experienced on his vacation while checking out in an airplane. Although we all may have similar stories to tell, I challenged those around the table to think about some of the good experiences they’ve had at flight schools–beyond the basic thrill of slipping the surly bonds of Earth.

And there were many bright spots. I heard about schools that always had a pot of coffee brewing, at least during these chilly winter months, and it was complimentary (each cup said, “Hey! Great landing!”). One pilot’s school sponsored weekly cookouts and other social activities. A flying club arranged monthly fly-outs of one to three days; students shared the flying and the expenses, and enjoyed sharing new experiences as a result. (You thought these were all going to be about food and drink, didn’t you?)

What do you like the most about the flight school where you trained, and why? What did that business do right? How did your instructor or school staff keep you coming back for more, especially as you struggled with landings, navigation, or whatever it was that you struggled with in training? I’d like to hear your thoughts.

17 Responses to “What makes a good flight school?”

  1. Pilot Portal USA Says:

    Excellent post and I would like to add the following. Where you learn to fly is really dependent on the type of learner you are. Some student pilots prefer a more structured situation, and others prefer a more laid back type of learning environment. In both cases, the net result is the same, hopefully a safe pilot who knows he or she has really just begun to learn how to fly. In my case, I learned to fly and received my pilot license at Stewart’s Aircraft Service in Waynesville, Ohio. Soloed in a J3-Cub and took my check ride in a TCraft, both tail wheel airplanes. I have to say that it was one of the most enjoyable learning experiences I have had. Stewart’s aircraft is a family run business and if you really want to learn to fly an airplane less by the numbers and more by how the aircraft feels, I strongly suggest Stewart’s Aircraft Service. To learn more about flight training visit Aviation Weather, Aviation Directory, and Flight Schools – For the American Aviator.

  2. Matthew J. Domnarski Says:

    I’ve been to a lot of flight schools, but none better than the now defunct Hawthorne College, Antrim NH (RIP 1988).

    We had great aircraft, excellent mx, superb safety culture, New England Wx and professional part 141 atmosphere.

    Not the largest of school, but an aviation scholastic hub composed of a variety of pilots and students. I look back at it now and compare it to being part of a University during the Renaisance where knowledge and learning blossomed by centralizing aviation activity.

    The Flight Syllabus was well organized with numbered lessons from PPL up to ATP, SOP and handbook. It wasn’t about building flight hours, or gouging students to make a buck.

    Hawthorne may be gone, but produced some great pilots that will never forget how good it was.

  3. Tracy Smith Says:

    Interesting report. Judging by this standard, I know of NO good pilot schools in my area.

    Period.

    Now, this begs the following question: why? Were there good pilot schools and they went dormant through bad management or leadership? Is there no market here for a dynamic, exciting GA training environment? Have we priced flight training so far out of reach there is no $$$ for ‘the fun stuff’ ?

    If any of the above is true, are we then looking at a marketing opportunity ?

    Is it no wonder then numbers of primary students continue to dwindle?

  4. Zeke Valtz Says:

    The characteristics of a good flight school vary with each individual. I agree with some of the posts above about social aspects that develop the community of general aviation – that’s certainly a key component. But I think we need to start with more basic issues:

    Quality of aircraft (this is not about new and shiny planes but rather maintenance)

    A syllabus the guarantees the material will be taught thoroughly and in a logical sequence that builds on prior lessons

    Customer service – how many times have you called a flight school and gotten an indifferent reply, poor information, or a poor attitude

    A commitment to consistent improvement in all aspects of operation

    A group of instructors that care about the development and progress of the students rather than self-serving time-builders who are simply using other peoples’ money to gain the requisite hours

    These are some of the items that I believe are vital as a starting point for a flight school – and frankly, few flight schools meet this challenge. And, contrary to popular opinion, it’s possible to have all these items AND develop the community of aviation AND generate a profit. It’s just a little demanding on the managers to do so -

  5. Steve Temmermand Says:

    A good flight school has good answers to several key questions:

    1) Does the environment support frequent interaction between students, pilots and instructors? The best flight schools have this key feature. They should be structured so as to help build a sense of community among its pilots, instructors, and students. The interactions of everyone on the ground help strengthen each pilot indiviually and helps grow the larger community.

    2) Does the flight school have a fair number of instructors? A fairly large number of instructors helps for several reasons including: a) allowing the student to find an instructor with a personality and instruction style that best suits their learning style; b) fragile egos can be a bad thing though sometimes with good benefits – when one instructor tries to “top” another in knowledge in a respectful way, everybody gains. These challenges help instructors grow. If a student is present when this happens in a productive way, everyone is the better; c) when a student flies with multiple instructors / check pilots, they get polished in their flying.

    3) Do they use airfields that hone a pilot’s ability (narrow, short, excursions into complex airspace)? I remember reading one pilot’s account where he shared that during his check ride in a 152 that he was asked to land on what he described as a “ribbon’ for an airfield. Then he added the dimensions of this ribbon – it was 75 feet wide and 4,500 feet long! I remember thinking how glad I was that I learned in an airport where the runway was 29 feet wide and the length was 1900 feet, with a super highway 250 feet from one end, and powerlines on high towers just to west that were close enough that every take off or landing had a non-std pattern. And this airport was under Class B’s first shelf. (Freeway Airport, W00) Thanks to that training, just about every field in the US is available to me.

    4) Is there a place where they can hang out and watch the aircraft come and go? Fact: Pilots hang out and watch other pilots. You know this because when you had the not-so- good landing at least a dozen people were watching. The absolutely “perfect” landings that happen only a couple times in every pilot’s lifetime are rarely seen by anyone you know. But students & pilots learn by watching other pilots and by listening to the comments of other more experienced pilots.

    4) Does it have a terrific pass rate with the designated examiners? Where I live there are quite a few schools around. The one I learned at has a tremendous pass rate. The reasons for this are simple; a) students fly with a variety of instructors and check pilots. No one is sent to their check ride unless they are ready and can demonstrate that in front of a”stranger” in their cockpit; b) the airfields they have been using have been challenging enough to polish their flying skills; c) the environment they learned in encouraged learning not only when the propellor was turning, but in inspired conversations they overhear adn join into when on the ground.

    5) Lastly, does the flight school know how to tell a student when enough is enough? Early on in pilot training I thought everyone could learn to fly., but I was wrong. Not everyone should have a driver’s license and not everyone who wants to fly should get a certificate, either.

    I know of a pilot who had over 400 hundred hours and didn’t have 15 hours of solo time. He didn’t trust himself well enough to fly on his own – and for good reason. He could not navigate nor could he land the plane safely! Yet somehow he made it through getting his ticket. This was despite the fact that he had numerous instructors and some of the best ever to fly. It was the first time I was ever faced with the ethical challenge about what to do in a situation where a pilot simply can not fly the airplane safely. Before the situation was resolved by official actions, he stopped flying due to medical reasons.

    It’s a well known fact among pilots and their friends: when you learn to fly your life changes for the better. Your sense of the world and what you can accomplish all have more clarity. A good school helps you activate the potential in you to become more than you are today.

  6. Roger Reeve Says:

    When I started seriously flying in 1989 there were many quality schools in southern Michigan, but one by one they have ceased to exist. If you want to fly today you have to join a club, or buy a plane and hire an instructor.

  7. Lee Jampolsky Says:

    In my opinion, the quality of flight schools is directly proportional to the quality and training of CFI’s. I have been working on my CFI for a while now, and although I have found some excellent instructors to teach, they are few and far between. I know of no “flight schools” that actually have what I would call excellent programs. I have been involved in higher education for over 3 decades, and I know of no other area of study that prepares future instructors so poorly. I have been exceedingly pleased that NAFI is becoming a stronger influence, but there is still a huge void in the education and training of CFI’s, and the profession of flight instructor is still far from what it should be in terms of an organized career path leading to high quality and consistent instructors. In short, if we want quality flight schools, we need to begin with the quality of training for the instructors. Would you want to have surgery from a surgeon that had to piece together his training and struggle to make a living? Of course not, and yet CFI training tends to fall in this category at the present time.

  8. Scott Demaree Says:

    Sometimes the experience at a flight school is bigger than all of us. In some cases, as they say, “It don’t get any better than this”. Like the first time I soloed at Riverside, aka Jones Airport in Tusa, said to be the 33rd busiest airport in the country with dozens of Spartan students in the patterns and approaches and on the taxiways at any given time. It was 14 years ago and the small independent flight school is no longer there, but Cameron Smith was my very competent and truthful instructor. I will never forget it. Two yellow biplanes were the only planes in the pattern as Cameron gave me my pre-solo check ride. Upon dropping him off and turning back towards the runway, the two biplanes did a high speed low pass in formation over the runway, came around and landed. The entire airport and perfectly calm evening sky were mine alone. For anyone who has read Richard Bach’s “Illusions”, the presence of the two biplanes was magical.

    Flashback another 9 years and my first landings in cowpastures in a ’47 Aeronca Champ. Bill Goeken, a co-pilot for Delta at the time, had bartered his instructor time in exchange for a table saw. We practiced landings in various private pasture strips in north Texas. We truly had to clear the grass strips of cattle before landing. I remember confirming my first unassisted landing when I turned around to see Bill holding his small son fast asleep in his lap as the plane rolled out. Bill, if you are reading this, you may be glad to know I am now instrument rated and SR20 endorsed. I hope you are well. Thanks for the inspiring start.

    Which brings me to my instrument check ride. No less a memorable event. Aviation folks in SE Iowa will recognize the name of now retired FAA examiner Tommy Thompkins. Mr. Thompkins, a P51 veteran, in his mid 80s at the time, gave me my instrument check ride on a rainy afternoon in Burlington Iowa during a Grumman owners fly-in. During every approach, a group of Grummans were flying formation with a few random planes mixed in to add to the excitement. Our traffic alert was going off continuously as Mr. Thompkins handled the radios and I did my best to execute approaches to check ride tolerances while dodging more adventurous pilots enjoying their afternoon in the sky. I understand Mr. Thompkins retired soon thereafter and I wish him well and a heartfelt thanks for a great learning experience.

    Last but not least, if you want a truly remarkable flight school experience, visit Classic Aviation in Pella, Iowa where I completed my instrument and Cirrus transition training. Shane Van derVoot runs a pristine FBO/flight school specializing in Cirrus transition training. Shane’s mom and dad fill in as office manager and flight instructor in a classic Dutch atmosphere to give all their students the benefits only a family tradition can provide.

    And speaking of family tradition, don’t forget to pay a visit to Ottumwa Flying Service, just down the road, where Steve Black and his wife and mom run a first class FBO/charter/school. The huge WWII hanger made entirely of wood is worth a stop by itself. Thanks and good luck to Ben Krieger for giving me a good start on my instructor ticket before he moved on to the regionals.

  9. Alan Ehrlich Says:

    My flight school (no longer in business) had two simple mottos:
    “If you can fly our airplanes, you CAN fly anything,” (spoke to equipment & maintenance)
    and ” At other flight schools, you only get to PRACTICE emergencies !)

    More seriously, I had one great CFI, Peter Delap, who was working on his hours for a job with the majors (he had success 1/2 way through my training) and then a constant changing cadre of other CFIs who were sometimes around for only 1 or 2 sessions. The Chief Pilot also changed at least once.

    After getting my PPSEL, I joined a local flying club with 6 airplanes and a dedicated core of CFIs who mostly had regular jobs and flying was a passion for them. What a difference. These CFI’s were and are much more interested in sharing their passion and joy of flying and turning out high quality pilots who will share the joy with them as opposed to the first flight school which operated more as a numbers game. Now I get that a business needs to make money, but my original FBO did nothing to engender loyalty or repeat business after students got their ticket.

    Another thought is to fix up the base of operations. While I don’t expect Raytheon or Flight Signature standards when I walk into a FBO, I really don’t like walking into an FBO where the couches and carpets have not been replaced in 20 years and the entire place is dirtier than my auto mechanic’s shop. As a pilot who enjoys sharing the joy of flight with friends and giving first flights to many “might be someday” pilots, FBO’s should have a lounge or main office area that is clean and presentable.

  10. Dennis Peters Says:

    I agree with Lee Jampolsky. It is my opinion that getting a CFI designation is only the first part of becoming an effective instructor. Any post-secondary education (a ba degree in any field) is followed by at least 1 semester of educational training for a beginning teacher. In essence learning to teach the field of study you have completed. I think it would be easier to train a CFI to teach than to train a teacher how to become a CFI. Having said that, I know of 1 very effective and much in-demand primary flight intructor who is a high school teacher and obtained a CFI at a muture age. He has also mentored the young CFI’s at a very busy flight school on the nuances of effective education.

  11. Zeke Valtz Says:

    It is with great interest that I’ve read the posts in this column – because I own and operate two flight schools in New England. And we’re constantly pushing to become a better organization so I’m hungry to learn what each of you thinks a school needs.

    While there are many things that contribute to the quality of a school, the single most important piece is the quality of the instruction delivered. After all, before we’re social clubs, we’re flight schools! So addressing the quality of the instructors is crucial.

    Most CFIs around the country are simply time building. They’re trying to become airlines or corporate pilots. And it shows. There are few CFIs who want to be professional flight instructors. Nor is there historically much perceived opportunity for them to do so. A large part of this is the pay. At most places a CFI makes as much as a burger flipper at the local fast food joint. If you want good flight instruction, you’re going to have to pay. And we’re starting to see that around the country. We see some schools with true professional instructors. They have the knowledge, teaching skills, and conduct to be counted as such. And if they are true professionals, they need to get compensated and treated accordingly.

    Mr. Jampolsky makes a particularly interesting point about the training process for CFIs. They’re given minimal training and then cut loose with little further guidance. This is not the way to ensure success.

    At Horizon Aviation, we have developed a systematic process to continue coaching and developing our CFIs. We’re the only school I know that does this. Our Chief Instructor rides along as an observer during a real lesson with each CFI on a routine schedule – with the goal of coaching the CFI to higher quality. He’s not there to teach the instructor – he’s there to observe the CFI and coach him/her. We have developed a comprehensive program that clearly articulates what every lesson should include and then we coach and monitor our CFIs to get to that objective. Also, we reward ongoing professional development. At the schools you folks have seen, when was the last time you showed up for a lesson and an instructor said “hey, I just read this article on xyz and here’s how it applies to you and it got me thinking about xxx.” We must keep learning and growing as instructors and pilots.

    Do you think this is on the right track? Thoughts/comments? Suggestions?

    Zeke Valtz
    http://www.horizonaviation.com

  12. Joe Gemma Says:

    I’ll start by saying I don’t have as much experience in the industry as most of you, I’m just about going on 7 or so years. However, I am a CFI, a very proud one. More than that, before I worked full time in aviation I spent 7 years in customer service, most of them in management.

    I planned on the usual path of becoming a CFI to build time and get out of there as fast as I could; however, after my first 6 minutes of it, I fell in love. I did it for 2 years, and about 1200 hours of dual given. Then I decided I needed to get a stable income and relax before the crazy dawn until dusk hours burnt me out. It was time to go for the airlines. Now I am a first officer with a regional airline (much less exciting!). I saw a good amount of CFIs come and go from our flight school. Most great, very few not great. Most were very professional with students.

    That being said, I think, for the most part, you have a valid argument. I think the main problem is that most CFIs aren’t happy in their position for one of two main reasons: 1. The flight school doesn’t treat them well, 2. They can’t stop looking forward to what comes after CFI, so they aren’t happy with their job. I think the second one is most common, but certainly not alone. I worked for best flight school in the state of Florida, maybe in the country. SunQuest Aviation in West Palm Beach. It’s a mom and pop shop run by a husband and wife. The husband is a pilot with a major airline and the wife is a comptroller for a country club. They run the flight school because they love aviation. They obviously would love to make extra money at it, but that is not their intent. They are both amazing people, along with a phenomenal office manager and a great group of instructors. The atmosphere was very laid back and very customer service oriented. It wasn’t run like a money-making business as many flight schools are. It is run simply as a professional, business-like flight school. The student always comes first. I cannot remember any students or renters that were ever dissatisfied, except for the occassional unreasonable one time renter. All of that boils down to the flight school being a big factor in grooming a CFI to be professional. As you stated in the article, much of it stems from the first phone call. I would urge you to call SunQuest any time you want, you’ll get Tamara, the office manager, on most days. You’ll hang up that phone wanting more than ever to get out to that flight school. Once you get there, you’ll be greeted by her once again and you’ll be astounded at the level of customer service. I promise you that. Each Saturday SunQuest hosts Pizza on the Patio, free for any and all airport bums and $50 SuperCub rides. Anyway, enough blabbing about SunQuest. The bottom line is that a good flight training experience starts with the flight school you choose and how that flight school chooses and grooms its instructors. I believe if you choose a flight school, rather than a business that involves flight training, you’re in for a success. On time, well prepared, business card-having, non-cancelling instructors are the ones that enjoy the experience of teaching and enjoy where they work. They’re the ones at SunQuest Aviation…

  13. Joe Gemma Says:

    I would also like to add, in response to Zeke’s post…

    I can vouch for Horizon as a great flight school, even though I prefer a part 61 training environment over a part 141 environment. I do, however, want to emphasize that a CFI doesn’t have to be a career CFI to be a great and effective CFI. We all know that there are plenty of CFIs that are strictly building time and do not value their students time, money, progress or enthusiasm. There are, however, some great CFIs that plan to move on to another flying career as their life moves forward.

    I simply want to point out that just because someone does not want to live a CFI lifestyle forever as a full time instructor, that doesn’t automatically bundle them with inadequate CFIs. I am sure Zeke will agree with this, as many of his instructors that have moved on were first rate. Regardless of one’s eventual plans, one either has a passion for instructing (as myself) or doesn’t. The latter will almost always result in a poor flight instructor.

  14. Denis Boissonneault Says:

    I have worked for five flight schools since I began flying in 2004. I have worked for two large international flight schools and two small flight schools and the other one is the one I opened this September. Of those four flight schools that I did not own, I noticed that the only one that was successful was one of the larger ones in which the owner was deeply involved in. I learned alot from that experience and I loved how he made sure he greeted everyone first and made them all feel like they were the most important person while he was talking to them.
    At my flight school I treat everyone the same and give them the respect that they deserve and I always greet them with a smile.

  15. Rebecca Gibson Says:

    Education experts say that a teacher is not past the “beginner stage” for about 5 years. I can testify that I didn’t really feel like a good instructor until I’d been instructing for 3 or 4 years and had about 1,000 hours dual given. Yet the vast majority of CFI’s don’t have 3 to 5 years to get past that “beginner stage” and become efficient, consistent, effective instructors that have students clamoring for more. Zeke and Horizon Aviation have hit the nail on the head with their policy of coaching their CFIs. For the first several years of a CFI’s instructing, a flight school should be giving him or her on-the-job training. Whether a CFI is part-time, an airline-bound time-builder, or a career CFI, everyone needs a little advice and guidance to steepen their learning curve, minimize frustration, and get them teaching better sooner.

  16. Jennifer Christiano Says:

    After 17 years of absence from a cockpit after earning my private pilots’ license at the age of 17, I finally decided to go back to flying. I lived in Oak Park, Illinois, at the time, and chose to attend the American Flyers flight training school at Du Page County Airport in Du Page, Illinois.

    That was one of the best decisions I ever made.

    I relish the opportunity to tell everyone what an absolutely superlative experience I had as a student at Flyers. My expereince culminated with a brief stint as an instructor there. I would have gladly stayed longer as an instructor but I received my CFI just shortly before Sept. 11th. For some time after that fateful day, there was no work there for part-timers like me. I therefore regretfully moved on.

    To say that I would literally kiss the ground my instructors walked on is not an exaggeration. They were, to an individual, patient, positive, very knowledgeable, open and friendly, professional, and, most importantly, supportive of me. Their positive attitudes and dedication to helping me succeed were critical because I had severe confidence issues and required a great deal of calm hand-holding to work through almost everything. I was my own worst enemy in the sense that my deep fears often severely hampered my abilities to perform. However, in five years of training, I do not remember, even once, an instructor becoming impatient or upset with me – although there were many times, I’m sure, when they were ready to chew their shoes with frustration by the end of a lesson! As long as I was willing to work (and believe me, I was), they stood beside me and let me know that they would be there for the duration. The staff, for the most part, treated me equally well.

    Those instructors and staff at American Flyers not only made me a CFII – an accomplishment way beyond anything I dreamed of when I went back to renew my license – they also made a deep difference in my life that far exceeded teaching me to fly. They turned my whole attitude around. Now I live in Boise, Idaho, and the situation is very different. The flying and instructing communities here are comparatively small, and lacking in structure, cohesion and ambition. When I came here the lack of employer support, students, and instructing jobs for “outsiders” like me forced me out of active teaching, although I still maintain my currency. What a disappoiintment. Someday I’ll find a way back in. In the meantime, I still fly for myself. And when I have the means and opportunity, I’ll go back to Flyers for a “vacation” to update my IFR skills, and simply enjoy the positive, dynamic interaction with the truly professional instructor culture there once again.

  17. ridwanzero Says:

    I relish the opportunity to tell everyone what an absolutely superlative experience I had as a student at Flyers. My expereince culminated with a brief stint as an instructor there. I would have gladly stayed longer as an instructor but I received my CFI just shortly before Sept. 11th. For some time after that fateful day, there was no work there for part-timers like me. I therefore regretfully moved on…..

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