Guidance on Choice of Flight Training Schools

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I tend to be long-winded, so apologies in advance. I'm in the early
stages of flight training (i.e. dreaming about it and not yet doing
it!). I'm enjoying your site immensely and thought I'd ask for some
guidance. This is for the PPL.

Briefly, for context: I live in the Tampa Bay area of FL. My free time
for training will be relegated to weekdays after 5 pm and the
occasional weekend. My financial situation won't support more than a
lesson a week or every other week, unfortunately. Given this, I'd like
to keep the per-hour cost as low as is safe and realistic.

I've got two main training options: 1) a flight school at an
uncontrolled airpark (http://www.clearwaterairpark.com/index.html),
which is about 3-5 minutes from my home and is actually a pretty neat
little place or 2) a school at the small international airport (PIE),
which is 10-15 minutes away depending on traffic
(http://www.camsflight.com/index.html).

The school at the international airport has an array of Cessnas
available (seen here: http://www.camsflight.com/RentalAircraft.htm),
including a 1950 C-140A tailwheel trainer. They also have a
full-motion Redbird simulator. The lowest-cost of these options is a
1976 Cessna 172M at $105/hr. They began as a maintenance house and
branched out into flight training. The flight school lead showed me
the aircraft and commented that the 1976 Cessna had "a brand new
engine," clearly touting their ability to keep their aircraft well
maintained.

At the uncontrolled airpark, there's a small choice of Cessnas, but
the most intriguing choice is an A-22 Valor light sport aircraft
(http://www.fpna.com/a22.htm) at $101/hr.

My direct question is, if choosing the lowest-cost option at each
place, would you choose to begin your training in the A-22 (which
actually looks like a neat little aircraft, though I'm thus far
woefully ignorant in the subject matter), or would you choose the 1976
Cessna 172M at the int'l airport?

A broader question, if you're willing, would be, given all the factors
I've presented, which school would you choose, and would you step it
up $10-20 more per hour for a better/younger plane with better avionics?

The school at the int'l airport actually seems to provide slightly
cheaper plane rental rates, but in my random internet roving I've read
that some folks are annoyed that your hourly clock is running while
waiting to take off at larger airports.

I'm sure you're busy, so thank you in advance for the guidance.

-- Adam Sechrest, May 3, 2010

Answers

You haven't said what your goal is. If it is to show friends a pilot's certificate of some sort, I guess the cheapest and fastest option is the best. If the goal is to fly out of a little airport in an LSA plane, probably the little airport school with the LSA plane is the best. If the goal is to use an airplane for transportation, fly from various kinds of airports, and be able to rent planes in other cities around the country, the school at PIE with the C172 would be a better choice.

You want to train for the situations that you're going to face after the instructor has stepped out of the plane. So start by writing down what you plan to do after you get certificated.

-- Philip Greenspun, May 3, 2010


Adam: To your follow-up question below... all of the higher-time instructors I've flown with are conscientious about clearing turns, as you'll have to be on your checkride. If you're getting VFR advisories from ATC during your airwork (I always try to get them since the Boston area is fairly busy) at least you have one set of eyes on your operation, but still you should start with a clearing turn.

Regarding fuel... I always check fuel levels visually and make sure that the caps are tight. Running out of gas is the number one reason for aircraft engines to stop. Line guys are usually more consistent than pilots, but they do sometimes leave a cap loose. Sample the fuel? It depends a bit on your airport. I always try to get at least one sample to make sure that they didn't put in Jet-A by mistake. At a very lightly used airport with potentially older Avgas, I would sample very carefully. At Hanscom Field, where everything is gold-plated and perhaps 50-100 aircraft are filled up with 100LL every day, I don't worry about contamination.

-- Philip Greenspun, June 14, 2010


Pfft, you ain't long winded at all. At least compared to me.

I would say most people are too cost conscious when it comes to airplane rental. Either this is for a vocation or avocation. If it's the former, a better cost analysis that includes the full training career, time to complete it, and time and money earned while instructing needs to be done. If it's for the latter, get out of the mindset that initial flight training is something you HAVE to do so you can fly. Properly think of it as flying you get to do until you get to do more. So for your broader question, I would pay the extra money for a plane I enjoyed more. Why pay 100 for a penalty box if 130 is fun?

Unfortunately, age isn't the end all be all so it's hard to tell. Especially with Cessnas. An older plane with good rigging and working radio's is better to fly than a newer one with sloppy controls and quirky radio's. Cheaper planes get rented the most, but crummy planes will have few customers. The instructors know what's what.

Paying to play at a large airport isn't getting your money's worth. If you are indeed paying to wait, that isn't fun. You might ask if they do touch and goes elsewhere, and how often. If they do most of the pattern work elsewhere, go elsewhere. It's much easier for the other school to expose you to the larger airport as much as you need it than the other way round.

Lastly, as much as I hate to say it, you want to avoid training in an odd plane, at least until you have most of your dual done. The odd plane is the one which is a one of it's kind at your FBO (so it could be a Cessna at a school of mostly Diamonds or Pipers). The reason is that you will have many more cancellations in the odd plane. The instructors know this, even if they don't know they know it, and will usually steer you to the most common plane.

The reason I hate to tell you that is because Cessna's dominance of the training fleet is bad for innovation in the industry. The Diamond's are superior in most ways to the Cessna's, but most schools will never learn this because they don't understand how Cessna's dominance has become self fulfilling. Most flight school owners are continuously cutting their own throats by sticking with Cessna. They need to band together and demand new models.

Bottom line, I would at least get the solo done in a Cessna or other plane with multiple copies. Then you can switch to another plane if you enjoy it more, and have few problems with reservations and dispatch.

Lastly, to really save money on your ticket, get your ground school done first. Then make 3 appointments to fly each week until you solo, and the same while you are finishing up. Know that your last few flights you will want to be preparing for your exam, so have all your mandatory flights done earlier in the process rather than just soloing.

-- Eric Warren, May 3, 2010


Thank you both for the responses.

My goal is to fly until I'm comfortable taking the family (girlfriend and two kids) on day trips or weekend excursions. I'll likely never own my own plane, and wouldn't use flying as a primary or secondary means of transportation. It'll be purely for family, fun, and freedom.

So given my goal and both of your responses, I think I'm leaning toward the school at PIE and a 2000 C-172SP (http://www.camsflight.com/N426SJ.html). It's about a $20/hr step up from their cheapest rental, but 24 years newer and with what I assume are better avionics ("King avionics").

-- Adam Sechrest, May 3, 2010


Thanks to the suggestions here, I've taken two lessons in a 1973 C-172M (new engine, exterior and interior completely redone). It's been great so far. I was assigned a young flight instructor (CFI, MEI) by the flight school. He's been great, seems knowledgeable and let's me fly the plane.

I do extensive reading about flight training, and I've noticed a few differences from the things I've read. Our pre-flight doesn't include a visual check of fuel level or a check that fuel caps are secure, and we don't drain and view the fuel from the wing sumps. (We also haven't done clearing turns prior to maneuvers, but I'm not sure how common that is.) I plan do these things on subsequent pre-flights since I'm doing them myself now. What I'm wondering is if the folks here think this should be cause for concern regarding future training at this school?

Thanks again.

-- Adam Sechrest, June 14, 2010


Philip: Thanks. I think I'll add visual fuel check and fuel cap security to my personal pre-flight now that I'm doing them myself. Maybe sample the fuel as well. And maybe I'll just inquire about clearing turns.

By the way, I've really enjoyed your site. I'm just disappointed that I've run out of things to read here!

Thanks again.

-- Adam Sechrest, June 14, 2010