Aviation Articles

  Choosing a Flight School

First things first, a good foundation. You are only as good as the foundation you create. Before beginning any sort of flight training you really need to do some homework on the school(s) you would like to attend. Please know up-front that flight training takes an extreme amount of dedication and money. What I mean by that is, you can expect to invest at least $40K-$60K in your flight training/time building which takes at minimum two years, full time. Until you obtain a commercial license you are unable to be paid for any flying you perform, so as a student you have no income unless you have another job.

The best way I know how to 'interview' any potential flight school is to visit the school in person. Talk with the instructors and students, and then most importantly ask to see the maintenance hangar. What you see in the hangar is most likely an accurate clue to how the company is run. Is the hangar clean/ picked up? Do the mechanics take pride in their jobs? Personally, I would want to know that the mechanics are happy and going 'above and beyond' in their jobs repairing/maintaining the aircraft I fly. If you are comfortable with what you have discovered, then move forward.

You can seek flight training through many different schools. There are formal schools like Flight Safety or an informal school like "Joe Blow's Flight School". Sometimes a local FBO (Fixed Based Operator) located at a nearby airport can seem much more attractive because of cost. Please keep in mind that wherever you go for training you can expect to pay somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 - $60,000 by the time you complete all of your training, no matter where you receive it. I recommend that when you are considering flight schools that you give more consideration to a school that operates under FAA Regulations Part 141. Part 141 stipulates that a syllabus be written and followed. A school operating under Part 61 does not have a syllabus and how much flight time you would need to learn a maneuver is up to the instructor. The schools that operate under Part 61 will advertise that the student can complete his/her ratings much faster if they are a quick learner. Well... I'd be careful of that. I have yet to see anyone complete training faster than a Part 141 school and either A) retain their education or B) have decent training to begin with. Basically a Part 61 school's instructor can make you fly additional hours (additional $$$) to complete a maneuver than a school that adheres to a syllabus with a set amount of hours to learn something. Interview the schools. You can obtain an aviation related degree or pursue another degree field. It really doesn't matter to the airlines. If an airline requires a four-year degree they don't care what the field of study is, just that the person has a degree. Your choice of school is very important, and your skills are also very important when interviewing. HOWEVER, the hurdle is landing that coveted interview. Unfortunately there are a lot of pilots on the street looking for jobs, with a lot of flying experience behind them, and I really don't see that changing for a few years, at best. You will need an edge.

In this day and age when competitiveness is running very high a guaranteed interview can be a prized possession. Remember that once you complete your training, you will probably have about 300 hours, give or take. Your training and aptitude at that point just aren't enough to land an interview (unless it's guaranteed through the school). You will need to build time by either instructing or flying cargo or charter. Unfortunately, those jobs are also competitive these days and the folks who hold those positions have quite a bit of time built up already and can have possibly up to 2000 hours, or more.

So, how do you get those jobs? Who you know becomes very important at this stage. If you don't know anyone that can help you into an instructor position or a cargo/charter job then you may want to consider the guaranteed interview school. Delta Connection Academy, for example, has a guaranteed interview with Comair (and perhaps a few more, I don't know their guarantees). I believe to qualify for an airline interview there are certain time requirements to complete as a student, depending on the program in which you are enrolled. To qualify for an academy instructor interview you must have completed at least two of your pilot or instructor ratings with the academy. However, I highly recommend you double check these requirements with the academy as certainly these requirements can change. There are several other schools which guarantee interviews so I suggest some research into which school would best fit your needs.

With that thought, please heed a word of warning... check up on the promises made by these schools. Many schools will advertise guaranteed interviews or industry connections. Be careful! Some airlines may have a "loose affiliation" with these schools. Meaning that they have taken some of their graduates in the past and agree to look at them. That is a far cry from a guarantee. OR, you will have to complete their program in the top 10% to qualify for their "guarantee". Check into it. Contact the airlines they say they have "connections" with, contact some graduates, and get on chat boards, find out the truth. You're investing a lot of money in your future, please don't just rely on promises.

Actually the students of the Pilot Development programs are in an enviable position. Probably one of the best positions of a pilot seeking flying opportunities with a regional airline at this time. The reason is really quite simple, the guaranteed interview. In a time where competitiveness is high and experience is crucial to landing the coveted pilot seat, airlines with the guaranteed interview don’t factor that in for the Pilot Development (academy) graduates. As long as that airline is hiring, they will be taking graduates. That doesn't mean the job is just handed to the graduate, there will still be plenty of studying for the interview in order to receive a job offer.

A common question is if the airlines "just look for the person with the most hours"-- the answer is no. Typically, airlines look at the most competitive, highest quality person. So hours is just one factor. They will also look at what kind of flying the applicant has been doing, in what types of aircraft, etc. But, hours are the first eliminating factor.

Again, the problem with a school with no "airline ties" is what to do after you complete your training. If you have a four-year degree then whichever flight school you choose should fit your needs. If you do not have a four-year degree then I highly recommend ASU, UND or the like. What does a four-year degree get you? Opportunity. Some airlines do not require one, especially at the regional level, but it will close doors for you at the major airline level if you do not have one. Why would you want that??

For students to make the decision to become a professional pilot they must understand that this industry is fickle and there are never any guarantees. I highly recommend that a student obtain a four-year degree in an unrelated field just in case the industry was to take a downturn you would then have another field of study to fall back on.

As far as what direction you should go, that is up to you. There is nothing wrong with obtaining your ratings and hours from a local FBO/school and then an instructor or cargo job. The different ‘academy’ programs simply offer another option with, perhaps, a faster timeline. But continue to ask lots of questions and talk to pilots who already fly for an airline. Chances are they will know of other folks who were in the same position as you.

On a final note, I'd like to stress that networking is incredibly important in this industry. You never know who you will meet along the way and they may be in a position to help in the future. This an extremely small industry. Believe me when I tell you that everyone knows everyone. Please remember to never, ever burn a bridge. Always be humble and respectful to everyone you meet. It just may turn out that someone you meet could be sitting across the interview table from you in the future. Make a point of talking to everyone you come into contact with. Ask questions and ask for advice. You may end up with a mentor. Pilots do love to brag (I mean talk) and they also love to help another pilot climbing the ladder.

Please remember, these are my personal opinions and I encourage you to get as many opinions as you possibly can. You must make your own choices, for your own reasons.

About the Author:

Lori Clark is the principal of Clark Aviation Consulting. As a former Manager of Pilot Recruiting for many years, she interviewed thousands of airline pilots and has an extensive knowledge of what airline pilot boards are looking for. Clark can help pilots understand what an interview board is looking for and how they are perceived. She offers simple but effective techniques that help pilots better present themselves before airline boards. For more information, please visit Clark Consulting at http://www.FlyTheLine.com or http://ClarkConsulting.blogspot.com

©2008 Clark Aviation Consulting, All Rights Reserved. Reprints with permission.

Article reprint Terms & Conditions