Welcome back to BogiDope! Last week we looked at the civilian pilot ratings that a military pilot may need to know about. This week we’re going to discuss some things to consider when choosing a flight school, look at a few specific flight school options, and talk about ways to get your ratings without breaking the bank.
Table of Contents
- Big-Picture Flight School Considerations
- Private Pilot Training Costs
- ATP Training Costs
- Review of Some Options
- How Do I Fund All This?
Big-Picture Flight School Considerations
Last week we discussed two general categories of flight schools: Part 61 and Part 141. We’ll get back to these formalized classifications shortly, but let’s start with some straightforward considerations.
First, if at all possible, I strongly recommend at least taking a tour, in person, of a flight school before you sign up. Most places will also offer a half-hour introductory flight. Paying for those 30 minutes of flying is an important part of you evaluating that company as your flight training provider.
You absolutely want a school with safe aircraft. I’ve seen some flying organizations that don’t take good care of their equipment, and I refuse to have anything to do with them. If you’re just starting out, it will be difficult to know whether a flight school is keeping up with maintenance; however, there are a few giveaways that should be obvious to anyone who’s ever owned a car.
As your tour guide or instructor is showing you around their aircraft, pay close attention to overall cleanliness. Don’t get too worried about fading or peeling paint on an older aircraft, but if it just looks dingy you’re not off to a good start. Watch for a layer of grime and dust all over the aircraft indicating that it spends lots of time sitting outdoors and doesn’t get washed. Look for smashed bugs on the windscreen and the leading (front) edge of the wing. If the plane has already been flying that day, it will have some bugs. However, it shouldn’t be completely plastered with dead carcasses.
A good flight school will at least wipe down the wings and clean the windscreen at the end of each day. They should wash their planes frequently enough to prevent significant grime from building up. Ideally, a school should have hangar space for most of its aircraft. A plane that lives its life on a ramp all day and all night is just going to have more maintenance issues than one that lives in a hangar. If the school isn’t taking care of simple cleaning, then it’s probably skimping on other maintenance tasks.
When you take a look at the inside of the aircraft, check for general cleanliness too. Scraps of paper, wrappers, and crumbs are easy to vacuum. Also, look for little stickers with the word “INOP” (inoperative) written on instruments in the panel. It’s legal to put off repairs by doing this, and it’s okay to see a couple of these here or there. However, if an airplane (or a fleet) has several of these stickers, it could be a sign that they don’t have the budget or willingness to carry out necessary maintenance. I’d rather see holes in the instrument panel where they actually took the time to remove failed equipment, than a bunch of INOP stickers meaning they have a habit of kicking the can down the road.
As with any car, you should also look for general wear and tear inside and out. Seats in training aircraft get a lot of use and won’t be pristine, but they shouldn’t be completely falling apart. Are there sun visors? If so, are they intact, or cracked and flopping all over the place? Do you see any obvious rust or corrosion anywhere on the aircraft? Does the windscreen look cracked or cloudy, a sign of plexiglass overdue for replacement?
Also, look around the ramp and in their maintenance hangar. Don’t be alarmed to see aircraft with an engine or propeller removed. That could be a good sign that they’re busy flying. Watch for flat tires or aircraft that look like they’ve been stuck in the corner and forgotten. If a flight school can’t afford to at least keep its aircraft on the flight line, they may have trouble affording other maintenance as well.
It’d be nice to always see fleets of shiny, new aircraft at flight schools. Unfortunately, new airplanes are outrageously expensive these days. You can find schools with fleets like that, but you’re going to pay a premium to help them make their loan payments. There’s nothing wrong with a school that flies older, slightly-less-shiny aircraft as long as they’re clean and safe.
Assuming you feel okay about the aircraft you see, the next most important part of training is the people with whom you’ll be flying.
Flight instructing is not easy work that pays poorly. Don’t be surprised if the instructors you meet on your visit seem young and a bit tired or worn-out. Don’t expect them to be overwhelmingly exuberant every moment, but don’t put up with a bad attitude. If you notice an instructor constantly complaining…about the job, the company, or the industry in general…just run away. You may just be able to go with a different instructor at the same school, but if they all have bad attitudes, just go somewhere else.
Having taught flying for 17 years, I cannot emphasize how important it is to maintain continuity in your training. This means you fly with the same instructor all the time, and that you go flying at least a couple of times each week. (It’s not too much to fly 4-5 days a week if you can afford it.)
One of the most frustrating problems in flight training is when your instructor gets a new job and disappears on short notice. It will cost you time and money to start training with a new instructor. You need to talk to the instructor you get paired with and talk about his or her background, current experience, and plans for the future. An instructor with just a few hundred hours is probably stuck instructing long enough for you to finish your training. If your instructor is very close to earning an ATP, he or she may already have applications in at some regional airlines or corporate flight organizations. If you’re worried that an instructor will move on soon, you’ll need to make sure you fly as often as possible to get done before he or she leaves, or just go with someone else.
It’d be nice to have an instructor with thousands of hours of experience, but that probably just won’t happen. Thankfully, I don’t think having a relatively inexperienced instructor is a problem. The US Air Force staffs part of its UPT Instructor Pilot (IP) cadre with First Assignment Instructor Pilots, or “FAIPs.” They complete UPT, go directly to IP school, and come back to start teaching UPT with a grand total of about 300 hours to their names…and they do a great job. The USAF makes this happen by giving them lots of supervision and limiting the lessons and conditions under which they teach until they get more experience.
Civilian flight schools tend to do the same thing. A brand-new CFI will probably start by teaching basic lessons for Private Pilot candidates. They’re familiar with the aircraft and they only fly in decent weather. In fact, they’ve just been through so much training themselves that they’re probably more familiar with the maneuvers you need to learn than a high-time CFI who is just getting back into teaching after years of military or other professional flying.
Continuity is good for instructors too. A full-time CFI who teaches the same thing every day will be very familiar with how to instruct the maneuvers and will know the common student errors you’re likely to make.
When I did my ATP, I had upwards of 4,500 total flight hours. My CFI had a total of 450. I probably could have spent a decade teaching him things about aviation and not run out, but he did a great job because he was familiar and current on the specific training that I was getting.
Although it’s nice to have a CFI who works a lot, watch out for complacency as well. It’s easy to get burned out teaching the same thing every day. Watch for instructors who seem distracted or disengaged. When (not if) you screw things up, does your CFI recite the same instructions over and over again, or does he or she take the time to observe what you’re doing and tailor fixes to your specific performance? It’s okay to have a frank discussion about this with your CFI after a flight. Sometimes, just addressing this issue is enough. Sometimes, it might prompt the CFI to take a couple of days off to recharge. Worst case, you may decide that you want to move on to a different person.
The Flight School as a Company
Another place to look for signs of a quality organization is paying attention to how the flight school handles itself as a business.
Don’t expect fancy facilities, but they should at least be clean and clear of clutter. If they have a secretary, he or she should be courteous, fluent in aviation terminology, and very familiar with company policy and procedures. If the secretary can’t answer basic questions, it’s a problem.
Smaller flight schools may not need or be able to afford a full-time administrative person. In that case, does the other staff return phone calls and emails in a timely and professional manner? There is nothing more frustrating than a flight school that doesn’t answer messages.
They should have systems set up for billing. They should be able to tell you how much they think things are going to cost, and give you a detailed breakdown of charges for each flight, or each phase of training. There are a lot of great apps these days that make scheduling, payments, and other record-keeping very easy for flight schools. Don’t expect a smaller organization to use one of these apps, but I’d hope that this is almost universal by now.
Does Size Matter?
Flight schools come in all sizes – from a single aircraft with a single instructor, to nationwide franchises with numerous locations and hundreds of aircraft. Each has benefits and drawbacks.
On the low end, a single-aircraft operation can be nice. If you and the instructor get along well, you’ll benefit from personalized attention. He or she probably has more time to devote to each customer and will be very flexible on scheduling. He or she will be motivated to take care of the aircraft because all of the company’s eggs are in that one basket. (A flight school like this almost certainly falls under Part 61.)
However, the danger is that every time the airplane gets grounded for maintenance you have to sit around and wait. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for bigger repairs to take weeks to fix. The same goes for the instructor. If he or she gets sick or takes a vacation, you’re stuck waiting. This will always cost you money in the long-run. When an inexperienced pilot sits around not flying, his or her skills immediately start to atrophy. You need to fly a bare minimum of 1-2 times per week if you want to succeed in your training at any semblance of a reasonable cost.
For these reasons, I recommend choosing a flight school with at least two aircraft, if not more. Ideally, those aircraft should be as similar as possible to each other. This will allow you to train in several similar aircraft, or at least make a quick transition if your assigned aircraft gets grounded. Ideally, you’ll stick with the same instructor for all of your training, but it’s always nice to have more than one instructor available. You’re better off spending an hour or two getting used to a new CFI than sitting around for weeks not flying.
The benefits of having a larger fleet and more instructors scale up, but only to a point. The larger a flight school gets, the more likely you will just be another faceless customer to them. It’ll be a constant struggle to get the levels of customer service from a large school as you should expect from a smaller organization. Having more aircraft and staff means this company has higher costs. (There are a lot of administrative requirements for a Part 141 flight school.) You will probably pay more for your training at a large school than you would at a smaller operation. I recommend only going with a large, big-name flight school if you plan to do all of your training at once.
Perhaps the ultimate example of a large flight school is an aviation university. Typically, these programs include flying in addition to a 4-year degree program. If you haven’t done college yet, these have some benefits. However, take a look at overall costs and make sure you can get a degree that gives you somewhat marketable skills. You may be passionate about aviation right now, but if your degree is so specific that it has the words “Aviation” at the start of it, you may be limiting your options if you need to find non-flying work in the future.
We’ve already mentioned it, but the timeframe is very important to your successful and economic completion of flight training. You need to plan to fly at least 1-2 times per week. Ideally, you should plan to fly even more often. If you can’t afford this yet, get a second job and put all the money into a flight training fund. Don’t start if you can’t afford to continue!
It’s possible to earn a Private Pilot’s License while working or going to school full-time. It will take at least a few months, but it’s doable. If you can afford to fly almost every day, and the weather cooperates, you could feasibly complete a PPL in 4-6 weeks. Many schools offer accelerated programs for this type of student. If you can afford to train like this, I highly recommend it.
For an experienced pilot trying to add on an ATP, you should plan on a full week to complete the ATP-CTP program. These are almost always set, scheduled programs. You’ll need to take leave/vacation from work to get it done. For a current and experienced pilot, the flying portion of the ATP can be very quick. I did two days of training with a check ride on the third day. If you don’t have much multi-engine time, or you have been out of flying for a while, expect to spend some extra days logging extra hours to prepare for your ATP exam.
Now that we’ve looked at some of the big-picture considerations, let’s estimate some real-world costs. We’re going to project what it’ll take to earn the ratings we’ve discussed at a smaller-time, Part 61 flight school. Then, we’ll compare those costs to the more packaged deals you’ll see at some larger, frequently Part 141 schools.
Private Pilot Training Costs
Although the regulations allow you to earn a PPL with just 40 total flight hours, it frequently takes upwards of 50-55 hours for many students. We’re going to look at estimates for both ends of that spectrum.
Aircraft and instructor hourly rates vary significantly by geography and other factors. We’re going to assume $130 per hour wet (meaning the price includes fuel) for a training aircraft, and $40 per hour for an instructor. Of the 40 hours you need, 15 will be solo.
We’re going to assume that you also pay $40 per hour for ground instruction, though the amount of ground instruction you get billed for will vary as well. (Don’t be turned off if they do charge you for this. It’s time your instructor spends covering important things with you…time that he or she could be flying and building hours.)
Here’s what your costs will look like with a minimum of 40 flight hours:
|Item||Unit Cost||Amount Required||Total Cost|
|Aircraft Rental||$130||40 hours||$5,200|
|Flight Instructor||$40||40 hours||$1,600|
|Check Ride Fee||$500||1||$500|
|Other materials (Headset, study materials, iPad or charts, etc.)||$1,000||1||$1,000|
If you end up needing more hours, it could look like this:
|Item||Unit Cost||Amount Required||Total Cost|
|Aircraft Rental||$130||55 hours||$7,150|
|Flight Instructor||$40||45 hours||$1,800|
|Check Ride Fee||$500||1||$500|
|Other materials (Headset, study materials, iPad or charts, etc.)||$1,000||1||$1,000|
This is a big investment; hence the lengthy articles aimed at helping you start on the right foot. Although it isn’t necessary to complete this training in order to apply for a UPT slot at a Guard or Reserve unit, most competitive applicants do. I highly recommend you try to find a way to fund this training before you apply. We’ll discuss more on how to do that later.
Last week we discussed some “extra credit” flight training you could do to make a Guard/Reserve UPT slot application look even better. We won’t explore those in great detail here because there are just too many options. They start at just a few hundred dollars for a complex or high-performance checkout to several thousand dollars for additional ratings. If you have the means to pursue these options they’re fun, and they’ll make you a better overall pilot. However, you should not incur debt for these types of things. If you can’t afford them, wait until later.
ATP Training Costs
It’s tough to find a la carte pricing for ATP training because most places prefer to price everything as a package deal. It’s also difficult to find multi-engine training aircraft because they’re very expensive to keep up. The following represents an ideal situation for an ATP rating for a very current and experienced pilot. I present it mostly for the sake of comparison later.
|Item||Unit Cost||Amount Required||Total Cost|
|Check Ride Fee||$500||1||$500|
Review of Some Options
Having looked at what these flight training programs could theoretically cost, let’s get some pricing at real-world flight schools and consider the pluses and minuses for each.
The first place we’ll look at is Accessible Aviation in Columbus, MS. This school is owned and operated by Carl Nuzzo, a retired USAF fighter pilot, with many instructors who work part-time when they aren’t teaching USAF UPT at Columbus AFB next door.
With three C-172s and a pair of Piper Senecas, Accessible Aviation has both fleet consistency and backup aircraft. Carl prides himself on tailoring his training to each student’s needs. He looks at the weather every evening and adjusts the next day’s schedule to make sure everyone can accomplish what they need.
Accessible’s location has RV hookups for students in accelerated training programs, and he provides lodging in a house as part of his fee for ATP students. Carl doesn’t do an ATP CTP course. Instead, he knows the best ones in each part of the country and recommends one for you to do closer to home, before coming down to Mississippi for your ATP flight training.
Carl has been running this operation for many years and has his costs down to a science. He’s able to get a private pilot course done for about $7000 out the door. When you couple that price with affordable lodging options, this is a perfect example of how much money you can save by going to a smaller school with older, but well-cared-for aircraft.
Carl specializes in military students. He has lots of practice teaching multi-engine piston aircraft to pilots who have never flown anything but turbine engines. He also specializes in accelerated courses for enlisted troops on the Ultimate Military Pilot Career Path. He’s done many zero-to-hero courses taking enlisted military members from pedestrians to 250-hour multi-engine pilots for about $50,000. (We’ll see in a moment how that compares to similar options at larger schools.)
Another school I’m a fan of is Mil2ATP, run by a retired USAF fighter pilot and current major airline pilot named Chris Kreske. They have a fleet of six Piper Senecas and eight Piper Warriors, though they’ve gotten busy enough that he’s always on the lookout for more airplanes.
As the name implies, this school also specializes in helping military pilots transition to the airlines. They offer a flagship Mil-to-Airlines course that includes the ATP CTP at the PanAm International Flight Academy in Miami, resume/application review and airline interview prep services, and much more for $8,250. Given the fact that most ATP CTP courses start around $5,000 by themselves, there’s a lot of value in this deal.
Mil2ATP also does other flight training. Their Private Pilot course runs $8,500 for 45 hours of flying. (It’ll naturally cost more if you need extra hours.)
PanAm International Flight Academy
The PanAM International Flight Academy offers some interesting options. You can go to them directly for the same ATP CTP course that Mil2ATP sends you to. PanAm doesn’t have the option of completing the flying portion of the ATP, hence their brilliant partnership with Mil2ATP. They will, however, pair the ATP CTP with one of their simulator-based type rating courses. (The type rating check ride also counts as an ATP check ride.) They advertise these courses as running anywhere from $6,500 – $15,000, depending on your experience and any deals going on.
I don’t generally recommend paying for type ratings, especially in such a common aircraft. However, if you have a guaranteed job flying a big jet that pays well and offers good Quality of Life, this could be a good way to knock out the ATP CTP, and your ATP certificate. Otherwise, you’re definitely better off with Mil2ATP’s Mil-to-Airlines course or Accessible Aviation.
For young pilots, PanAm’s Career Pilot Academy Catalog lists the cost of its PPL program at over $15,000! Their zero-to-hero course will run you about $57,000, including extra fees and lodging.
ATP Flight School
I did my ATP at ATP Flight School. This is a national chain with a fleet of 393 aircraft at 38 locations. They’re masters at churning people through their programs, but I wouldn’t expect the personal touch you get at a smaller school.
ATP Flight School has a zero-to-hero program that includes Commercial Single and Multi-Engine ratings, plus Flight Instructor ratings for Single and Multi-Engine aircraft and Instruments in just 9 months. They also offer you a guaranteed job as a flight instructor to help build hours once you complete the program. You’ll need a job of some kind because this program costs $80,995.
If you show up having already earned your PPL, they’ll discount this to $63,995, implying that they value the Private Pilot portion of their course at $17,000! Knowing this, I can’t imagine many scenarios where the average pilot would even consider starting a program like this until he or she had already earned a PPL. However, it also makes you wonder if the rest of their training is priced at such a premium.
Part of the reason a place like this can charge so much is that they cater to foreign students. Many countries simply don’t have the kind of flight training options that we do in the US. It’s usually an airline funding the training, so the companies here can charge extra. (This is also true for PanAm.)
For an American citizen funding your own flight training, this full program is a lot to ask. However, if you can come up with some scholarships, you may be able to make a program like this feasible. Few flight schools will virtually guarantee you this much flying in just 9 months.
Collegiate Flight Programs
An alternative to flying-only schools is to attend a college with an aviation program. Many of these offer degree programs where some of your flight training counts for college credit. These degrees aren’t the most marketable in the future, but it could be a way to roll academic scholarship or grant money into covering part of your flight training. You’ll need a college degree to fly as a military officer or major airline pilot anyway.
The University of North Dakota, a well-known aviation school, costs just over $11,000 per year for tuition and fees for ND residents and military veterans. They also have automatic scholarships (discounts) of up to $2,500 per year based on your SAT/ACT scores. That’s a relatively good deal for college these days, but it doesn’t include your flight training costs. Their pricing sheet puts a PPL at just under $12,600.
At somewhat the other end of the spectrum, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is one of the best-known names in aviation universities, but it comes with an associated price tag. (It costs so much that you have to set up a login and fill out a questionnaire just to get a quote.) It’s high enough, at least several times UND’s price, that I would not consider attending without serious scholarship money.
If you really want to combine flying and college, I recommend looking for a smaller school than these big names. Middle Georgia State College, for example, is significantly less expensive, both for tuition/fees and for flying, than these other options.
For flying jobs, nobody cares where you got your ratings. As long as you’re a Private Pilot, you’ll have a very strong Guard/Reserve UPT application. As long as you have an ATP, an airline will take you. I recommend going with the least expensive option that gets you the rating you need, as long as it meets the other criteria we’ve discussed here.
How Do I Fund All This?
Like it or not, you’ll have to invest some money upfront to start a flying career. Trust me, it’s worth it. The potential lifetime earnings of an airline pilot will enable you to make up for living frugally while you go through training.
One way to get started is to apply for scholarships. There are a surprising number of them and the best listing I’ve found is on a website called Blonds in Aviation. You can sort the list by type of scholarship, and it lists them in order or submission due date. There is no excuse to watch hours of TV, beat another video game, scroll through 27,000 thumb swipes worth of social media, or pay to go drinking until you’ve exhausted your scholarship application options. This is free money that can often be had by just filling out a few forms and writing a short essay. If you pay for flight training without at least applying to as many scholarships as possible, then you’re a fool (like I was).
Scholarships aren’t the first or only option though. I’ve written extensively about ways to reduce your out-of-pocket costs for flight training. Check out the series called “I Want to be a Pilot, but I Need Cash Now”:
- Earn a Glider Flight Instructor (CFIG) rating and start teaching for money with as few as 25 hours.
- Earn a Sport Pilot Instructor (SPI) rating and start teaching for money with as few as 150 hours.
- Part 3: carefully selecting your flight school/aircraft, doing as much self-study as possible, and applying for scholarships are important for every student pilot.
- Use your pilot knowledge to teach Part 107 ground school classes to drone pilots as a side-hustle. This is a multi-million-dollar market that has barely even been touched so far.
- Serving in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) gives you access to a lot of cheap and free flying, if you’re interested in being part of a service organization anyway.
Most military pilots will need a civilian pilot rating at some point. Guard/Reserve UPT applicants significantly improve their chances by having a Private Pilot License when they apply. Experienced military pilots will need an ATP to move on to an airline job.
Choosing where to do your training will be a balance of flexibility and individual attention versus reliability and cost. We looked at a few options here, and I recommend asking around The Pilot Network if you want an opinion about anywhere specific.
Although none of these programs are cheap, there are ways to reduce costs. Make sure you choose a safe program with some redundancy of aircraft and instructors but don’t go to a big-name school thinking it’ll help you get a job. Get the ratings you need and move on. Good luck with your training and fly safe!