Red Flags of Flight Training
Before anyone wants to begin their flight training they need to make sure they have three things, the time to train, the knowledge to gain, and the money to spend. One of the biggest factors of these three that most people worry about is cost. Flight training is undoubtedly expensive, yet there are people who spend upwards of $100,000 and some who keep it below $60,000 for the same ratings with a great overall quality experience and training. If you’ve been around the industry long enough and talked with many pilots you’ll come to find that not one person’s journey into the industry is the same. Every road you take to get your initial training done comes with its pros and cons. Ultimately the flight training industry is a business just like the airlines are a business. Each one is selling a product by which there is supply and demand, quality vs quantity, and resource distribution issues. Players in the flight training industry at the bottom of the totem pole take advantage of want to be pilots by advertising a “pilot shortage” whether there is one or not, incentivizing the idea of high pay as an airline pilot in as little as two years; knowing their desks are filled with qualified CFI resume’s and a constant grab for students to meet their bottom line. The top of the industry advertises a low ticket airfare to a popular destination get your click, then charge you to bring on a bag what the initial price of your ticket costs. The word on the street is the aviation industry has its flaws from overregulation, to surging prices through insurance companies requirements, and pilots pay being a never ending struggle with many companies bottom lines. However, despite all the doom and gloom speak, there are lots of opportunities and prosperities to be found in the aviation industry. I will say it nice and clear for those who judge before they think; not all companies are the same, and not every time period or regional area for flight training is the same. The goal of this article is to show POTENTIAL things to look for that may be red flags. Just because your spouse has red flags doesn’t mean you can’t live happily ever after. The thrill of flight has been capturing the minds of those who look to the skies for over one hundred years now. It’s a long and hard road with many potential pitfalls for the uneducated so here I am writing another article to you on choosing your place of flight training and the major red flags to avoid!
1. Paying Huge Costs Upfront
“I can get all of your private training done for $10,000 up front in under three months.” If a flight school tells you this, and it’s what is needed to begin your flight training I would run. Your flight training is a journey and anyone who quotes you under $10,000 for a private license is most likely phony. Why would you begin a fully funded journey in which you are unsure you will like? What if you get three lessons in, find out you don’t blend well with the instructors, the place is poorly managed, and the aircraft have maintenance issues you find concerning? There Is a difference between block time and large costs upfront. If they say hey you can rent the plane for 10 hours at $90 with a block purchase of $900, as opposed to paying $120 n hour individually for the plane that’s understandable. Flight training is a very dynamic process and there’s not one size fits all solution. Some people would argue against this, stating there’s many roads that lead to the same place. Yet the comeback to that is you’ve met professionals in the industry with all the same credentials but some acquired more knowledge and experience than others correct? It’s not a coincidence that receiving quality coaching and training takes time, as does becoming great at flying. Also, on that $10,000 deposit you put down to start your training how much of it is refundable if you decide to stop half way through?
2. The Financial Well Being and Status of the School
Why is the status of the school important? How am I as the student supposed to know the banking status of the school? Besides taking large lump sum payments from students to pay last months bills as your first warning sign, the next place to look is the “toilet paper”. What’s the overall condition of the airplanes and the school? Do the airplanes get washes frequently (cost saver), are the bathrooms always stocked with supplies (cost saver), and is the main facility generally clean? You can know a flight school is in trouble when it begins to sacrifice the quality of its establishment to meet the bottom line. The bottom line can be dictated with integrity by the means needed to keep the business running while providing a quality experience or the bottom line created by the desire of poor leadership to fill its own pockets sacrificing the students experience. The way to find out if your school of choice is not doing well is to go experience it yourself for a few lessons and make your judgements with the new knowledge you have. If the school is going downhill financially and one day during your training the whole operation ceases to exist you will have a lot of work to do to get reoriented at a new flight school, and hopefully don’t lose that $10,000 deposit.
3. Student To instructor ratio, student to airplane ratio
Though not as common of a red flag as others is the inability of the school to provide adequate resources to its students in regards to instructors and planes. Does the school have 60 students, 15 instructors and three planes? Instructor availability and aircraft availability are crucial to being able to progress in your flight training. If there’s one plane for every 10 students it may be hard to get scheduling availability. Also if there’s only three instructors for 20 students it may be very hard to get quality time with the instructor on the consistent basis that you would need. A good ratio I’ve seen work is that for every 6 students there should be one airplane and one instructor. If the school has 36 students, 2 airplanes, and three instructors it would be very hard to schedule with active students.
4. Flight School Scheduling
An easily overlooked item that is important to flight training is how the school does scheduling for lessons. Can you book an airplane and instructor weeks in advance for a full schedule or are there restrictions to that? Do you get last minute changes to your schedule which cause unnecessary time sitting around the office waiting for lessons due to poor management? Also, are there any steep fees for cancelling a lesson? I have known flight schools that charge $250 if you cancel within 24 hours of a scheduled lesson which is almost 5/8 the cost of a lesson at an expensive school. Does the flight school have a policy about cancelling a lesson and do you know what the requirements are to meet it if you need to cancel? No aviation training operation is going to be perfect in their ability to create a smooth flowing schedule with students, instructors, and airplane maintenance due to the nature of the training environment, but that does not mean the flight school should not provide high duty of care in managing it.
Maintenance on flight school airplanes is a touchy subject for many schools. You’re taking airplanes that are 40+ years old and putting a hundred or so hours on them every month sometimes even two hundred. The flight school owner will say, “What do you expect me to do? Keep them in show room shape?” and to the unknowing renter/student you’ll subtly nod your head in agreement and carry on with your flight training. However, with a bit of knowledge, due diligence, and experience on airworthiness by the renter/student it shouldn’t be an issue for schools who are being honest and diligent about their logbooks. This article isn’t meant to be a dive into airworthiness and how to check it as a diligent student/renter. It’s a general guide to spot shady maintenance practices by flight schools.
A. Is your flight school’s aircraft rental rates for a 172 abnormally lower than other schools in the local area? There’s a difference between a wet and dry lease in regards to cost, but at the end of the day the fixed cost of operating an older 172 is going to be about the same assuming the planes fly as many hours of each other. The less a plane flies the higher its costs are going to be to operate. Busy flight schools will put on about 100 hours a month on each plane. If the 172 you’re renting has an abnormally low rate compared to schools in the area either the owners footing the bill themselves to supplement your training or there’s a shortcut being took which is most often in the department of maintenance which helps the owners bottom line.
B. As the planes fly more and more the operating cost goes down, but the small preventative maintenance items that may need to get taken care of go up like oil changes, servicing nose wheel struts, replacing safety wire, cleaning spark plugs, replacing batteries, and replacing hydraulic fluid. These are all things that don’t need to be done by an A&P, the owner can do it but is the owner qualified to and Making the proper log entries in the airplane logbook? This is not necessarily a huge red flag, but it’s the little things that add up.
C. All this talk about maintenance and up keeping the airplanes but without the airplane logbooks and access to them it doesn’t mean anything. The main question is, does your flight school provide open access to logbooks and a way for everyone to stay on top of the maintenance of the planes? If the answer to this is no, major red flag. The ability to assess the airplane as airworthy before every flight is the responsibility of the PIC which means checking the aircraft logbooks for the required inspections before you even go to do a preflight on the aircraft. If you’re a student pilot and don’t know how to read maintenance logs yet that’s why it’s even more important for you to learn how to understand and read aircraft logbooks from the start as it’s your legal responsibility to know whether or not an aircraft is airworthy. If asking the owner to see the logs before you go fly the aircraft to, “get familiar with them to meet your PIC duties” and they’re even more distant after you asking. Red Flag.
D. How is the maintenance done on the aircraft? It’s one thing to bring your airplanes to an on airport insured mechanic shop and another to have it done by a guy who shows up with his truck, fixes the planes, signs the pre-made logs by the owner and collects his check. What happens when the truck mechanic gets sick, injured, or unable to perform his duties? The airplanes go untouched until the miracle A&P can come back to service leaving airworthiness items to question. Having a flight school that works in tandem with an established maintenance shop or a couple A&P’s under an established business shows good leadership on behalf of the flight school. Establishing a good relationship with those mechanics or shop that work on the aircraft is not only beneficial to the prospective students flight training and overall experience, but usually ends up giving them a better working knowledge of how the aircraft functions by physically seeing the parts move under the cowling.
Needless to say the topic of maintenance is a very important topic when it comes to flying an aircraft in general, however the general public doesn’t understand when they start their flight training what goes into an aircraft being “airworthy” and there’s a general trust that is set forth by renters to owners that everything is up to date. If an accident or incident occurs during your rental trip and the FAA comes knocking and the aircraft logs deemed the plane not airworthy prior to your flight it’s going to be the PIC’s fault. Liability for duties of pilot in command during flight training will most often be held on the instructor giving instruction, but that’s a topic of conversation for another day.
The 40 Hour Private Pilot
The forty hour private pilot is a challenge that few have been able to conquer, where as the mean average to getting a private pilots license is at about 65 hours. If a flight school bases their claims for cost on 40 hours and doesn’t offer the “flight training times to completion are variable and this is just the minimum by the FAA standards” then they’re deceiving you on pricing from the start. Red Flag
Wow! This place has 4.6 star reviews on Yelp!
I hate to admit it, but online reviews can be very deceiving. It’s standard practice now for businesses to buy fake reviews, or even give themselves reviews under different accounts. Also yelp gives the company the power to get rid of reviews that are negative against their business so you don’t often get to see the negative ones. Generally great schools will have great reviews, but I have noticed the places you want to avoid often go to extreme length to rid of any negative reviews online making it hard to tell if there are problems. If you are researching a place to start training, do on the ground reviews with people at the local airport and skip the online research. Ask around instead, often “hangar talk” will be way more informative than any online review will.
Does the flight school have a good culture on taking care of the airplanes? Just because the old Cessna 172 that you’re going to fly is 60 years old and has some cosmetic issues doesn’t mean it can’t be treated with respect. Does the flight school wash their airplanes? Does the school go out of their way with students to show them how to not slam doors, or force knobs/buttons to move in the cockpit? At the end of the day it still is someones aircraft that you’re flying, and you can tell a lot about how much the owner cares about their business and clients by how well they take care of their assets. Sometimes putting in the extra effort goes a long way to impressing new clients. You should be able to tell based off what you see when you walk in and go for a flight.
When training to be a Certified Flight Instructor, one of the things you must learn and teach about is Professionalism. Just because the flight school hires people who know how to be and *should* act to a professional level doesn’t mean the flight school who hires them will provide the same level of service. What resources are you able to access if you’re struggling in a certain area of flight training? How does the school deal with students who are struggling in their training? Does the school have 100 hour private pilots? How does the school handle negative past business interactions with students? There are many ways a flight school can be unprofessional and just as many if not more ways a flight school can go out of it’s way to make sure it’s clients whom all are going to spend a college fund and more on their training get the best most professional experience possible. Another great place to look for professionalism is taking a real good look at the instructors. Are the instructors happy to do their jobs? Are they paid a decent wage? The hardest question you can ask a CFI there (because you may not get a straight answer) is, “Hey Mr./Miss CFI, if you were in my shoes right now would you recommend doing all my flight training at this school, or are there better options out there?” The CFI will be faced with a dilemma because bad business would be to say negative things about their place of employment but if they’re an honest individual they will tell you what they think about the state of the industry and training options in the local region. If the CFI comes back at you and says, “Yes, I’m super happy you’re thinking about training here with us and there are other options out there, but I believe you’ve found the best spot” with a genuine tone and expression; you know you’ve found a potentially good school. If you look at the school as a professional investment in which you are going to sink your college tuition fund (60-100k) into, the culture of the school has be good as well. Is it a welcoming and exciting environment to be in? Are people celebrated for their individual and collective accomplishments? Do you feel you can talk to head managers freely about concerns? Approaching and analyzing the schools professionalism that will often give you the best mentality and results when it comes to getting a return on investment.
A good flight school is going to be insured, sure everybody knows that. The question becomes do you know what you’re liable for as a renter if something were to happen? The key to this is to pay close attention to the rental agreement as it should spell out what your liabilities are, and getting your own renters insurance to cover that is always a good idea. It’s always a good thing to get a bit more insurance than you think you need in aviation because when accidents happen they can often be a lot more damaging than you would think. The next question is does it cover multi engine training and rental? Insurance is only a red flag from a flight school if they are not upfront about the coverage that you need to bring to the table as a renter. Also look for words like “indemnification” and make sure to read through that section a few times to make sure you sign the rental agreement. Actually, read through the rental agreement many times and take detailed notes on the fine print. It’s just good practice before you sign anything.
Ground Vs. Flight Time
We’ve all heard the horror story of the 90 hour private pilot who failed the oral or the flight. Flight training should consist (for most people) of ground instruction and flight instruction. If you find that a flight school is always pushing you to fly fly fly, without doing through briefs, before and after the flight including some ground knowledge time, they’re not doing you any favors. The rule of thumb is that for every hour you spend in the airplane you need three hours studying on the ground. For every hour you spend in the airplane as well there should be at least 15 minutes of debrief material to talk about. If you come to the end of your lesson and the instructor has no more than 5 minutes of debrief for you I suggest finding another instructor. An instructor that is not paying apt attention to your training and finding ways to help you improve in meticulous detail is not doing their highest “duty of care”. There are many instructors I’ve seen that get burnt out of instructing and they don’t give adequate instruction in the plane that their students deserve and are paying for. This severely will inhibit the ability of the student to learn and progress. If the flight school seems to have a trend of go fly without a why, a clear cut objective for the lesson for the day. Red Flag. Flight schools make the most money when their planes are in the air, and
If you find yourself in the air a lot, you’re now at forty hours and aren’t thinking about check-ride prep at that point, it’s time to reassess and have a real conversation with the school, your instructors, and yourself.
The Classic Up Charged Materials Seller
“You see in order to get started today here uhhh sir uhhh I’m going to set you up with these required training materials” and that’s how your first day of flight training was a $1200 bill. You got 1.3 hours of flying in, 2.5 hours of time with the instructor and sold a bunch of books that you could get for free. Sure the school may be selling you books you may look at and use a few times, but did you know most of the resources that you need for flight training can be found online for free? The same publications that the scammer flight school is selling to you hard copies of because you don’t know any better? Selling you books that can be found online for free, either marking up the price, or selling it “same price as online”. The key is that there are ways to buy the books online in a bundle for cheaper, but then sell them as individual books for a profit. Red Flag.
Switching Instructors Frequently Throughout Training
There are many arguments for and against the idea of training with multiple instructors. I have found that primary training to solo needs to be with one instructor for most effective results, and if the student wants to fly with other instructors after that it is very good practice for them to, as many insights can be gained from flying with others. HOWEVER, my point in adding why this Is a red flag for official schools doing flight training is that for every flight instructor the student switches they can expect to add 5 hours of training time onto their total time towards the rating they’re getting. Flight schools know this inhibits the progress of their students when they’re constantly having to re do lessons because the “new instructor needs to see if the student can perform or not”. It’s how you can have a student go from almost ready to solo at 12 hours with a good instructor to 20 hours after that spent with another instructor, who then dumps the student back to the original instructor with now bad habits and flying traits they would’ve never picked up, now expecting to sign them off to solo; all in the good name of meeting the companies bottom line. See how it works? Follow the money. The ONLY time switching instructors works frequently and is beneficial is when there is a strict syllabus that is followed and the lessons flow from one to the next. However, even this logic comes to a dead end if the instructors and school are doing their due diligence because at some point a single instructor is going to have to sign off the student for solo, for solo cross country, for the practical test, for the written test, etc. That is when the liability comes on the instructor as by giving the student their endorsement they are saying they legally VERIFIED all the required regulations and training of this particular student has been up to standard. Hence, if there is someone who is not in a VERY structured syllabus environment where instructors are in constant communication with a detailed tracking system of students progress then switching instructors is not going to be beneficial for the student as they will have to prove to whichever instructor has the “hot potato” last that they are able to be endorsed. I personally during my training will always send students to other instructors upon the completion of phases of training such as, pre solo, pre cross country, and pre checkride prep, however as I am the one that will endorse them and assume all the liability that comes with that will conduct the majority of their training, while using other reliable instructors as stage checks to double check my verification of high standards for the students. Flight training is an intimate process that involves lots of trust between the instructor and student. Don’t be the one that got away ;).
14. I’ve done 80 hours of ground time 10 hours of flight time.
I personally know a friend that this scenario happened too. He spent $10,000 on his initial aviation pursuit, (I’m not even going to call it flight training) doing 80 hours of ground and 8 hours of flight time over the course of three months. This happened because he was an uninformed, good willed, aviation enthusiast ready to become a pilot and he thought that’s just how the system worked. What he didn’t realize was that the “instructor” who was giving him the “training” was a washed up old fart who no longer had the abilities necessary to be deemed a teacher as a good CFI should be. He was crooked and stole my friend out of $10,000 of his parents hard earned money to be used in his flight training. This is an extreme case in aviation where things go wrong. However, it brings up the point of “How much is too much ground?”
Ground training is just as valuable to training as is time spent in the airplane. It’s a time to sit down and discuss things before the flight to prep for it, and after the flight to debrief it. Ground training is the perfect time to come to your instructor with questions on the homework that you’ve been doing to be prepared for each lesson. The rule of thumb as mentioned earlier is that for every hour you spend in the plane you should be spending three hours on the ground studying. That’s correct but the intelligence level varies from human to human so you can’t expect someone to comprehend the same amount of information as another, but through the bell curve we know that three hours for every one hour in the plane ends up as solid advice. Then how did he end up with 8 hours of ground for every one hour in the plane? He should’ve been a proficient private pilot with all that knowledge! Ground time is valuable time between an instructor and a student going over the pertinent things discussed in the lesson plans, oral knowledge, and recent flight experience. Knowing where the limit of instruction is needed is valuable to saving money. “Hey Jimmy kiddo, whippersnapper, we need to do a two hour ground which I’m charging $80 an hour for every lesson we do” Red Flag.
This article is meant to be a guide, and is not going to be true in every scenario for flight training establishments. Just like no student is the same, no flight training operation is going to be the same. However, there are general trends that can be seen throughout the industry and I was taking the derivative of those trends into an articulated form for the readers benefit. There are many places that may have a quality or two discussed in this article, it does not mean that it should be automatically taken off your shopping list. There are pros and cons to every aspect of life, it’s up to you what you’re going to be willing to deal with, and what your overall goal is. I promote prospective students to do as much research as possible before they find a place to put their hard earned money (and overall investment) into. Interview multiple flight schools. Found a flight school? Interview multiple instructors at that flight school, take the first few flights with different instructors on the primary lessons and make your decision. Flight school won’t allow you to explore your options? Red Flag.
The Flight Training Industry is a business and the goal of any business is to capture the attention of the consumer, sell them a product, receive their money, and keep the business moving to generate profit over time. Your power as the prospective student/consumer with a goal of a successful, cost efficient, foundational flight training is in your pocketbook. Why not spend time understanding the power you have?
If you’ve made it this far in the article you’re the type of pilot that is going to be safe, practical, and successful in this industry. If you desire the level of detail and insight in your training to the depth this article provides, please fill out my student application form. I am always looking and willing to accommodate students that wish to invest in their flight training the right way, while bringing the proper mentality of dedication. I am currently an independent contractor out of an amazing club in Corona called California Flyers with DPE’s in it that give great availability for check rides for students. I can’t wait to hear from you.
Where Leadership and Aviation Takeoff,