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  • Dyfrig Gibbs

Choosing your first FTO - A Guide


You’ve made one decision - it’s no doubt taken some time and careful deliberation - you’ve chosen the modular route. Well done, good choice.

Bam! the next decision is on you like a Typhoon chasing down a drug smuggler in a 152... Where to do your PPL.

Choosing your first flying school is a tricky business, it’s like choosing who you’re going to fall in love with but you’re not allowed to let your heart have the final say: if you don’t give it the thought and analysis the decision deserves you are running the risk of encountering a honey trap that will leave you bitter and broke. Get it right though, and you will fall in love and have a honeymoon period of training that will set you up for a successful and rewarding journey to the commercial flight deck.

For many of you, this whole passage may be irrelevant, you may be in the same position I was when I started out: you want to stay local to home for your initial training and that area has a total of 1 flying schools. Flying school A it is then.

However, I moved areas almost immediately after having gone solo, so needed to find a new school. Our new area has, within a 45 mile radius, 5 airfields and about 15 schools/clubs to choose from. Time for a spreadsheet.

Cost is obviously a major consideration when choosing a school. Average PPL costs for 45 hours flying in the UK range from 6,500 to 9,000 GBP. When you consider that 60,000 GBP is the upper end of how much you’ll spend on this journey, that 2,500 pound difference represents a saving of around 5% of your total cost and nearly 30% on just the PPL.

The disparity in aircraft hire + instruction costs per hour obviously has to be considered, but also weighed against numerous other costs that may well be less publicised when you initially enquire or sign up. These are the costs that you should be aware of before you commit or pay a membership fee.

  • Membership fees - find out what’s included.

  • Landing fees - are they included in your lesson rate.

  • Touch + go fees - Some schools/airfields charge for them.

  • Ground school tuition fees.

  • PPL exam sitting fees.

  • Solo aircraft hire - some schools don’t apply instructor rate to solo training hours and it’s worth considering these for post qualification, as you’ll no doubt want to stay with that club for some hour building.

  • Travel costs to and fro the airfield

It is worth accumulating figures for all these elements and entering them into a spreadsheet. Once you have done this you will have a ranking in terms of total cost to gain your PPL (assuming minimum flying hours and exam passes)*

*Note - it is worth using this technique to ascertain what you could potentially gain your licence for at each school, but don’t take the final figure as a guarantee that you’ll spend that much. 45 hrs is the minimum - a diligent, talented and hard working student at a good school with a good instructor should have no problem achieving this, but even then if the training is spread over a long period it could easily take more than 45 to be ready.

Obviously, cheapest doesn’t mean it’s the best option and likewise, most expensive doesn’t mean best product: the cost of the training needs to be weighed against the quality of the service you will receive.

No doubt by the time you have collected all your figures - through trawling each school’s website (getting distracted by pretty pictures of planes in sunsets) and harassing their evasive receptionist over the phone - you’ll have identified a couple of front runners. At this point it’s time to go and scope the joint.

Before you arrive at your potential flying club remember that you represent a sizeable income for that school and they will, more than likely, tell you everything you want to hear, that they are the best and that everyone else in the area are cowboys - this could be true, but you’ve got to decide that for yourself.

A great way to get your first pointer to how you’ll be treated is

start by telling whoever you’re meeting, be it the owner, CFI, or your potential instructor that you want to go all the way to commercial. In many clubs this will draw clear and immediate scepticism - if it does, it’s a bad sign but don’t hot foot it out of there, just let it sit and see how it affects the rest of your dealings with them. I mention this because it isn’t unfair to say that there is a divide between general aviation (GA) and commercial aviation training. This divide is not marked, in terms of the quality of training provided, but in the attitudes of each sectors ambassadors and the attitudes with which they conduct their training. If you get a sense that your school understands the journey you want to embark on and are willing to prepare you for it as best they can, and will set clear standards for you as a trainee you should be encouraged.

To explain further: there is a degree of tolerance accepted at PPL level that under the right (or wrong) instruction could see you a great deal less proficient than is possible in 45 hours. If your school understands this and immediately promises to give you a strict PPL programme that will set you up for the next stage of your training, you are onto a good thing. Here you can see the clear advantages of choosing a school that also provides CPL training - you can reasonably expect your training to be professional from the outset. This premise shouldn’t be taken for granted however, you could easily find yourself at an established commercial FTO that has become under-resourced, marginal and sloppy with it’s service. Likewise there are many PPL schools that simply don’t want to provide commercial training but are committed to providing the most professional basic training and establishing themselves as feeders to certain bigger FTO’s.

So during your visit firstly you need to establish how professional the school is and what their attitudes are to flight training.

If you are happy with everything so far, next you need to consider how many instructors they employ and how many aircraft they have in their fleet: you need two things to have a lesson, a working aircraft and an instructor. It is usual for you to be assigned 1 instructor for your training, so try to establish what availability they typically have and if that fits with your schedule. At this stage it is also worth noting that your relationship with your potential instructor is one of the most important factors to consider: It is vital that you respect him or her and that likewise they respect you (you’ll have to earn this though).

The number of aircraft in the fleet is an important factor because they must be routinely serviced, this often means them being out of action for a period: the ratio of A.C to instructors must be high if you want to avoid non-weather related unscheduled disruptions.

The type of Aircraft the club/school use is less important than you might imagine - during your total training you will inevitably fly a few different types, the basics and principles are all the same, one aircraft won’t make you better than another. People definitely have favourites, but that’s usually down to what they were chucked in first. It is your responsibility as a student to learn all you can about the type you are flying and it’s performance criteria - doing so will make you a better pilot and set a good pattern for your future training. The condition of those aircraft however, is important. By this I don’t mean new, most training aircraft today are products of the 70’s, they just need to be well maintained and clearly looked after - there is a substantial cost to aircraft maintenance so it isn’t unheard of for clubs to do the bare minimum. As you are not likely to be a light aircraft engineer, you may not be able to tell too much about the general repair of the AC, so you will just have to make a judgement based on the owners professionalism and cleanliness of the fleet.

The last thing to consider is; what can that organisation offer you after you’ve gained your PPL. It is absolutely normal for student pilots to want to continue with the initial hour building stage at the same place you qualified, after all, you will have become familiar with the airfield, the local area and the aircraft along with their individual traits. By this time too, you will no doubt have a good relationship with everyone in the club, and they will trust you to take their expensive toys for jollies around the country - this intern will comfort you and give you confidence to do such adventurous things. You should consider if they offer Mentored Hour Building packages, and if so, do they sound challenging and rewarding. Can you do any further ratings with them and are they cost effective? Finally, can you do all of your training with them? Do they offer CPL ME/IR courses?

If they do offer all the training you will need to go commercial, their total costs are within your budget and you would like to complete your training locally, you should consider this option. Having one training provider can help you achieve your licences in minimum (or close to minimum) hours, and of course all of your training records will be with one single provider - which can save a certain amount of paper chasing for your prospective MCC/JOC provider and potentially, first airline.

I've also stumbled across another perspective on the same subject that has some really valid points that I hadn't considered. Check out http://bushpilothq.com/finding-a-flight-school/ a great Blog from someone on the other side of training, who's living the dream in Indonesia.


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