How to Choose the Right Flight School

A quality flight school has clients who are engaged and happy.
A quality flight school has clients who are engaged and happy. (EuroPilot Center/)

A flight school (otherwise known as an aviation training organization) conducts the business of teaching people to fly. It can take on a variety of guises, from the small, traditional flight school at a local airport using a light aircraft or two all the way to those international ATOs that train pilots for the airlines—and often conduct their recurrent training as well—in large fleets of aircraft and flight simulators. Of course, there are many that fall in between these two generic categories.

The organization you choose should depend on a couple of factors. Primary among them is your goal. If you want to learn to fly at a measured pace—near your home, for your own business or recreation—you’ll generally search locally for a place to train. If you want a career in aviation, you’ll make a larger investment in time and money. You should look both locally and nationally—or around the world—based on where you want to fly and how much you can spend.

If your goals are personal, you will pursue a certificate under the civil aviation authority where you live (such as the FAA in the US). If you want to fly internationally, you may choose an ATO elsewhere that provides training for the type of pilot certificate that will make you most attractive to your airline or company of choice.

Before you start, try to locate pilots who have achieved your goals—especially if you can connect with those who work at the company in which you’re most interested—and talk with them about what worked best and if they have a flight school they would recommend. Keep in mind, though, that what works best for one pilot may not be the right choice for another, so you’ll still need to do some homework—and legwork—to make the best decision.

You’ll also need to understand a little bit about yourself and the environment in which you thrive. Perhaps you went to (or plan to attend) a large university that offers a wide range of services and new people to meet—and the energy that comes from being in the thick of it. Or maybe you crave a more intimate scale for your learning experiences, where a small class or one-on-one training suits you best—a place where everyone knows your name and folks look out for each other. While both large and small flight schools can deliver the goods, some students find one that suits them better than the other.

Considering all these elements, let’s take a look at the kind of flight school you might find at your local or regional airport within driving or commuting distance. The travel time is a factor that can cut into your ability to schedule enough time for flying. You may be geographically narrowed to one or two options if you live in a rural area, or fight a lot of traffic. In this case, your choice of instructor may also be somewhat limited.

A small flight school may or may not have a chief flight instructor and other staff; it could be informally arranged, operating under Part 61, and work as a collection of flight instructors who use the same airplanes to teach. This casual structure doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no structure at all. Some of the best training can happen under these conditions—if they suit you. Interview the manager or owner of the school to get a sense of what to expect. You may even find that a flight instructor working on his or her own can provide the personalized attention you need, but consider that this plan may offer little in terms of a backup if that CFI encounters a health issue or a maintenance problem with an aircraft they use for training.

A larger flight school, or ATO, will have more administrative staff and certain positions required by the civil aviation authority, depending on the number of students and aircraft. You will want to interview the chief flight instructor (and chief ground instructor, if you can) to determine what level of quality they strive for in their operations. The larger the school, the more variety it typically has in terms of its course offerings and, perhaps, the choice of aircraft. It may provide training beyond the commercial- or airline-transport-pilot level and into type-rating training on entry-level jets such as the CRJ series or Embraer E145—or even the Airbus A320 or Boeing 737.

You could also choose to attend a degree or vocational program delivered by a college or university dedicated to aviation. This path typically interests those who pursue a career as a professional pilot, but you might enjoy adding flight subjects for a broader degree. Associations such as the Aviation Accreditation Board International and the University Aviation Association can provide feedback on a given institution’s reputation and diligence in the industry.

Regardless of the size of the operation, you will want to see the following when you visit your school of choice:

Does the facility appear clean, well-maintained and welcoming? You’ll want to spend your time at a place that reflects pride and positivity in its daily operations.

Do the aircraft appear well-maintained and tidy? Ask what kind of maintenance program the aircraft follow, whether they are maintained in-house or by a local provider. Either is fine, but there should be no hesitation in the answer.

Do the flight instructors follow a standard syllabus, or are they free to conduct their own training regime? Too strict a program may be stifling to some people, but there should be a certain amount of oversight, even in a small operation.

Does the flight school or ATO ask you for cash up front, or a large deposit (more than 10 to 20 percent), to begin your training? Any more than this amount should raise a red flag about the organization’s financial practices and may hint at cash flow problems down the road.

Does the general demeanor of the school reflect positive attitudes on the part of the staff and students or clients? One person’s complaints may be an outlier, but hearing negative comments from multiple sources bodes ill for a good training experience. Don’t forget to check online for comments or reviews of the schools you find interesting.

You might also consider how well the school has modernized and whether they incorporate flight simulation into their training syllabi. Flight-training devices—as the FAA refers to approved simulators for light aircraft—come in a wide variety of types and price points. Using one can greatly aid your training, not just from a cost standpoint but also in terms of time and effectiveness of training.

If the flight school where you intend to train doesn’t use any form of flight-training device—even a desktop computer running a good flight-sim program such as X-Plane or Microsoft Flight Sim can be of use—take that as an indication the school might not be up to the latest standards in terms of training savvy. This is particularly true if you intend to pursue a professional-pilot track. You will be training in full-motion, sophisticated flight simulators for much (or all) of your airline and jet-type-rating training, so becoming comfortable in an FTD can pay great dividends for your career.

Whatever direction you choose, remember that the relationship you build with the school is a two-way street; you have rights as a customer, but you also need to fulfill their requirements as a participant in their training. If you understand what is being asked of you, and you deliver on those expectations, you should reap the benefits of their expertise. You also deserve to be treated with respect—and give that respect in return—or reconsider the relationship.

These are just a few tips to get you started on your research. For more information, there are a number of online resources to help you locate a good flight school in your area. You can begin that search on Flying’s Learn to Fly webpage where we link to ways to search effectively and understand the information that an ATO promotes online.


This story appeared in the Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine

Katherine Johnson, NASA mathematics pioneer, dies at 101

Katherine Johnson at NASA Langley Research Center in 1980.
Katherine Johnson at NASA Langley Research Center in 1980. (NASA/)

This story originally featured on Popular Science

NASA mathematician and trailblazer Katherine Johnson has died at 101 years old. Johnson was among the first black women to work at the space agency as well as at its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Among her many achievements, Johnson computed the flight path that Neil Armstrong and his fellow Apollo 11 crew members would take to make their historic trip to the moon and back.

Johnson was coincidentally born on Women’s Equality Day in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. She was “simply fascinated by numbers,” starting at an early age, according to NASA. Her local school system only provided education for black students until eighth grade, so Johnson’s family moved 120 miles away to enroll her in high school. She then skipped enough grades to graduate college at 18 years old.

After years as a teacher, in her mid-30s, she began working as a “human computer," performing calculations for the Mercury, Apollo, and Shuttle programs. She was so respected by her peers that “John Glenn requested that she personally re-check the calculations made by the new electronic computers before his flight aboard Friendship 7—the mission on which he became the first American to orbit the Earth," NASA wrote.

Johnson went on to spend 33 years in NASA’s Flight Research Division, the office that launched the American space program. There, she and colleagues wrote an entire textbook on space mission mathematics because no such reference work previously existed.

Over the decades, she worked with several hundred educated female mathematicians at NASA, the New York Times reports. Johnson was one of about three dozen black women working for the space agency and its precursor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).

For all her legendary achievements and obstacles she had to overcome, her identity remained obscure over the twentieth century, though Johnson has received her due recognition over the past decade. In November 2015, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. Two years later, NASA named a new building after Johnson on the 55th anniversary of John Glenn’s trip into space—her calculations made the voyage possible. The national space agency named a bench after Johnson in 2016, which sits outside her former workplace at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

In 2016, the film Hidden Figures portrayed Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson) and her colleagues Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson (portrayed by Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe, respectively). The movie won the Screen Actors Guild Award for outstanding performance by a cast in a motion picture and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Late in her life, Johnson regularly met with children to promote math and science careers.

“We will always have STEM with us. Some things will drop out of the public eye and will go away, but there will always be science, engineering and technology. And there will always, always be mathematics. Everything is physics and math,” she said to students.

Planning in Full Force to Commemorate the 75th Anniversary of WWII’s End

The Arsenal of Democracy Flyover will fly past monuments on the Washington Mall, including the World War II and Lincoln Memorials.
The Arsenal of Democracy Flyover will fly past monuments on the Washington Mall, including the World War II and Lincoln Memorials. (Tony Granata, Courtesy of Commemorative Air Force/)

World War II ended in a series of events marked by two prominent milestones in 1945—the end of the war in Europe in May, and the closing of the war in the Pacific in August and September, with the final conclusion of the war marked by the signing of the instrument of surrender of the Axis forces in the Pacific on board the USS Missouri in Oahu, Hawaii, on September 2.

The 75th anniversary commemoration of V-E Day—the day World War II officially ended in Europe—will take place from May 6-10, 2020. A consortium of associations and commemorative groups plans a major flyover of warbirds to soar through the skies of Washington, D.C., on May 8. Commemorative events marking the end of the war in the Pacific will follow, from August 29 to September 2, in Oahu, centered around the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum.

A series of flights honoring various segments of the aerial forces, including a flight of training aircraft, will comprise the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover and Legacy of Peace Aerial Parade.
A series of flights honoring various segments of the aerial forces, including a flight of training aircraft, will comprise the Arsenal of Democracy Flyover and Legacy of Peace Aerial Parade. (Tony Granata, Courtesy of Commemorative Air Force/)

The 75th WWII Commemoration has been authorized through legislation under the Department of Defense, which “provides the umbrella for all official events,” according to a press release distributed by the consortium’s organizers. The honorary co-chairmen nationally for the event are Senator Bob and Elizabeth Dole, with Linda Hope as national presenting sponsor, representing the Bob and Dolores Hope Foundation. The commemoration is intended to create “renewed and heightened awareness” for the historic events, the ramifications of which the world feels 75 years later. In doing so, the events will honor “the Greatest Generation,” and illuminate their achievements and efforts as inspiration for future generations.

Many ways exist for those interested to participate, including banquets in Washington and Oahu, and ceremonies at the respective memorials in D.C. and Pearl Harbor. And—best of all—two aerial demonstrations will highlight the commemorative activities. The Arsenal of Democracy Flyover on May 8 will feature a planned 100 aircraft from the war over Washington, and the Legacy of Peace Aerial Parade in Oahu will take place on three days over the course of the commemoration in Hawaii. Sponsorship opportunities are available through the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum or the 75th WWII Commemoration Committee.

FSANA Asks Pilot Examiners for Help Clearing Test Backlog

FSANA is asking DPEs to take on additional check rides if they have the time.
FSANA is asking DPEs to take on additional check rides if they have the time. (Wayman Aviation/)

The Flight School Association of North America is worried about the backlog of applicants nationwide still waiting for their check rides to prove they meet the FAA standards for a given pilot certificate. FSNA said last week in a news release that, “This backlog is affecting the pilot production pipeline nationwide. Waits for practical test scheduling in many locations are more than a month, causing flight training providers to limit student intake and applicants to spend more to remain current and proficient as they await testing availability.”

“The FAA has approximately 950 DPEs who are able to provide practical tests. Most do this work as a part-time vocation, while also working as professional pilots or instructors,” according to FSANA. The part-time nature of DPE work has historically limited the number of tests an examiner can provide, working out to an annual average of 63 year. “Very few DPEs in the system average even one test every other day.”

The work that an FAA DPE does on behalf of the FAA, while compensated, is also a service to the industry. There’s a designated pilot examiner aviation rulemaking committee already at work creating fresh selection and oversight standards for DPEs, but the results of this long-term effort won’t be known until this fall.

The association and some designated pilot examiners need help now and are specifically asking other DPEs for help to clear the backlog by giving a few extra tests if they have any free time, especially during the months of April and May 2020. Appropriate testing standards will continue to be upheld.

FSANA also said flight training providers can help by ensuring the applicants they recommend are indeed ready, qualified, and proficient within the testing standards. Many DPEs encounter cancellations because of scheduled applicants who weren’t actually ready, didn’t meet all experience requirements or had other administrative challenges. If you are a flight training provider, check to make sure available testing blocks don’t go unused.

Remote ATC Testing to Begin at Northern Colorado Regional Airport

A view of the Remote Tower facility from a Controller workstation.
A view of the Remote Tower facility from a Controller workstation. (Searidge Technologies/)

Pilots who are used to flying into Northern Colorado Regional Airport (KFNL) near Fort Collins/Loveland—and operating there like they would at any non-towered airport—will need to take careful note of major air traffic control changes coming soon to the airport. Beginning in mid-March, KFNL becomes a “towered” airport with the addition of a mobile ATC trailer (MATCT) providing on-site services. The trailer and local controllers will eventually give way to a remote ATC facility as part of a test being conducted at the airport.

Initially, local controllers in the trailer will handle the traffic, while evaluators employed by Searidge Technologies of Ottawa, Ontario, will conduct “passive” operations from a remote facility. This summer and fall, a second phase of testing begins when ATC services will be provided by the remote tower, with local controllers in the MATCT acting as back-up. As testing progresses, full-time ATC services will eventually be through the remote tower only as Searidge pursues certification of the technology from FAA.

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Colorado Remote Tower Project is a “first of its kind” design that integrates both satellite-based aircraft surveillance technology with ground-based video technology. For the tests to be conducted at KFNL, there will be three 360-degree panoramic video and static cameras securely mounted atop steel masts that will rise between 22 and 56 feet above the ground, simulating the same view one would expect if looking from a physical air traffic control tower. The camera and satellite-based surveillance data will then be fed to a remotely-located control center. During the test and assessment phase of this project, the control room will reside on airport property, but will accurately simulate a remote scenario. Future control centers can be located from a remote location.

Camera arrays at KFNL will give remote air traffic controllers a view of the field similar to an on-site control tower.
Camera arrays at KFNL will give remote air traffic controllers a view of the field similar to an on-site control tower. (Searidge Technologies/)

KFNL was chosen as the test airport for the Colorado Remote Tower Project after a thorough site selection process in 2015 conducted in collaboration with FAA’s Nextgen office. The airport is jointly owned and operated by the cities of Fort Collins and Loveland and sees approximately 85,000 to 95,000 takeoffs and landings per year. A total of nearly 265 aircraft are based at the airport, which serves users ranging from privately-owned aircraft, commercial airliners, military aircraft, pilot training, and helicopters. The airport is home to three flight schools, specialized aircraft maintenance services, and a 24/7 fixed base operator (FBO)

In July of 2017, following significant efforts to develop the project requirements and scope, the FAA selected Searidge Technologies to design, install, test, and certify the remote tower equipment being tested at KFNL. Other partners in the project include William E. Payne & Associates, FAA, National Air Traffic Controllers Association, Northern Colorado Regional Airport administration, and the Colorado Division of Aeronautics.

Northern Colorado is one of the most rapidly developing regions of the state, according to CODOT, with the Colorado Division of Local Affairs and State Demography Office projecting that populations for the area are expected to more than double by the year 2050. “A growing population of this magnitude will result in increased demand for all modes of transportation, including air transportation. The Colorado Remote Tower Project is a proactive measure designed to address the future increase in aircraft operations at KFNL with dramatically reduced costs compared to constructing, maintaining and staffing a physical air traffic control tower,” CODOT said.

The mobile tower’s hours of operation will be 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. local time effective March 16, handling traffic on 118.4 MHz. Other frequencies include 121.65 MHz for ground, 135.075 MHz for ATIS, and 122.95 MHz for unicom. The common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF) of 122.7 MHz will be eliminated when ATC services begin being provided by local controllers in the MATCT.

EAA Hosts First Winter Flight Fest

A bright orange Birddog was the perfect aircraft to attract visitors—and be seen in the snow—during the Winter Flight Fest at Pioneer Airport in Oshkosh.
A bright orange Birddog was the perfect aircraft to attract visitors—and be seen in the snow—during the Winter Flight Fest at Pioneer Airport in Oshkosh. (Jason McDowell/)

Many things have to fall into place for a skiplane fly-in to come together, and each is a moving target. A nice snow base is needed, the snow itself shouldn’t be too icy or slushy, and of course ceilings, winds, and visibility need to be conducive to flying. Fortunately, all converged perfectly on Saturday, February 22, at Pioneer Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for the EAA’s first annual Winter Flight Fest.

A combination of the event formerly known as Family Flight Fest and the traditional Skiplane Fly-In, the first Winter Flight Fest provided visitors with a variety of interactive activities, such as a radio-controlled aircraft demo, a scavenger hunt and a model contest, all held inside the EAA Museum adjacent to Pioneer Field. Shuttle buses provided regular transport between the museum and the skiplane parking area, where visitors could observe flight operations, see the skiplanes up close, and chat with the pilots and owners in person.

A Kitfox lands in front of the main hangar at Pioneer Airport next to the EAA Museum.
A Kitfox lands in front of the main hangar at Pioneer Airport next to the EAA Museum. (Jason McDowell/)

Clear blue skies and temperatures that climbed into the upper 30s welcomed approximately 1,600 people, 27 skiplanes, and one helicopter to the 1988-ft grass runway located within Wittman Regional Airport’s airspace. Pattern work was not permitted, limiting each skiplane pilot to their arrival landing. There is hope this will change in the future, allowing visitors to observe ongoing pattern work in a manner similar to the ultralight runway’s flight operations during AirVenture.

The integration of the two events into the new Winter Flight Fest is a welcome change to the fly-in calendar as it not only provides a great contingency plan should conditions be unsuitable for skiplane operations, it also offers adults and children alike a day of aviation fun that might otherwise be lacking in the middle of a long Wisconsin winter.