How To Pick The Right Flight School

Paul Ingram

12 Sep 2019

Piloting an aircraft is a privilege so few people get to do. With the most likely reason being the financial cost associated with aviation, it certainly makes sense to shop around.

The biggest problem is that as a budding new student pilot, schools will happily sell you their sales pitch and tell you why they are the best place to enrol. They won’t tell you why they are the best school compared to the other schools in the area.

So how do you get the right school?

It’s not about the cheapest

Often I hear or read people asking whether it’s best to do their flight training in a specific aircraft because it’s a cheaper rate than the other option at the school. For example, saving 10% per hour because you do your training in a Cessna 152 vs a Piper PA28 is often a sound decision. But there are other costs associated with flying that should be considered, and the cheapest rates don’t necessarily make you a winner.

What the Hobbs?

There are a few different ways schools, clubs and flying groups tend to work out their hourly billing on aircraft use.

"Brakes to brakes"

Also referred to as “brakes off to brakes on”. This is exactly what it says - your billing starts from then you move the aircraft to when you park it up, usually rounded to the nearest 5 minutes. It’s also the times you enter into your flight logs. It has the disadvantage that you could be paying to sit at the hold waiting for takeoff clearance. If your airfield is prone to long holds due to traffic, this might lead to increased flight costs. This appears to be the most popular among flight schools and clubs.

"Airborne"

This is similar to “brakes to brakes” except your billed time starts from the time the wheels leave the ground to them being planted nicely on the runway. For that reason it works out cheaper because you don’t get charged for ground movements. You do need to remember to note your takeoff and landing times, as well as your brakes off/on times! I’ve seen this used at some clubs and hire places.

Tacho

My personal favourite, as I think it’s the fairest both on the pilot’s finances and the aircraft. Your costs start the moment you start the engine, but because the tacho’s “speed” is linked to the engine’s RPM, it effectively runs slower when you’re on the ground. For the sensible pilots this means you’ll be kinder to the engine as you’ll be less likely to run it at higher RPM unnecessarily. Typically you’ll end up paying around 50 minutes of time for an hour of flight time if you do it right! You’re most likely to find non-equity and equity groups billing using this method.

Hobbs

The most controversial type. A “Hobbs” meter is similar to a tacho in that you have a number that goes up as you fly, and this represents flight hours. Unlike a tacho, the “speed” at which this increases does not necessarily vary depending on RPM. Also unlike a tacho, the meter can start running differently depending on how it’s been wired up in the aircraft. Some start running when you start the engine, others when the oil pressure is above a certain point. Some even start when you flick the master switch... which is pretty dangerous as it could lull you into the trap of rushing through your checklists to keep costs down. After speaking to a number of people, this is the least popular billing method and I actively avoid anything running on Hobbs. Even my PPL examiner has made comments on how dangerous it can be.

Cleared to land...

In the UK most airfields have a landing fee payable when you land, and many reduce that fee for a touch and go. However, these costs soon mount up, especially when you start flying circuits. At my training base I often racked up 6-8 touch and goes in an hour...

Many flight schools have an annual membership, and include landing fees within that, saving you some serious cash!

Membership fees

As I mentioned above, expect an annual membership fee. You can get some great value here, but at a very minimum you ideally want a flight school that includes landing fees within the fee. You’ll normally find that this is limited to the club/school’s aircraft only, but this will save you a small fortune. Some places offer more in with their annual membership fee - free or reduced cost access to workshops or seminars, access to help or advice if you need it and (hopefully!) a good fleet of well-maintained aircraft.

Aircraft options

As I mentioned at the start of this post, if you have the choice of doing your flight training in two different types of aircraft with two different price tags, it generally makes sense to conduct your training in the cheaper aircraft. This is because you will naturally upskill throughout your flying once you have your licence, and you can do so at your leisure. Conducting your training in a larger plane when you can do it in a smaller serves no real purpose.

There is also another term you may find - “wet” or “dry” hourly rates. “Wet” rates include oil and fuel in the price, whereas “dry” is literally the hourly cost needed to cover expenses such as engine and aircraft maintenance, insurance, instructor remuneration etc.

The other thing to consider is availability. If the cheapest aircraft is also the only one, but there are three others at a higher cost, availability might be an issue. You may need to book much further in advance, or the plane may be unavailable due to maintenance (schools obviously have a much higher maintenance schedule simply because their aircraft are used a lot more.) If your goal is to fly more regularly, the cheapest aircraft in the fleet might not be the most sensible choice overall.

The instructor

Of course, the person sitting next to you for most of your flight training isn’t doing it for free. They’re probably there for the same reason you want to take to the skies - they absolutely love aviation and have a massive passion for it, but their wages have to come from somewhere. Some schools include this in the hourly rate, others charge separately for instructor time. In the UK you will be paying “dual” rates for all of your training (as when you fly “solo” you’re still flying on the licence and authorisation of an instructor. If a school charges separately it’s worth making sure this doesn’t inadvertently end up costing you much more than you realise.

Talk to people

Reputation and ability is just as important as how much it’ll cost. If you train at a school where you don’t get on with them or their instructors, you’ll inevitably spend more money through flying more, and this will ultimately affect the total training cost. Also it’s a good idea to try and find out how they carry out their training and (if possible) find out what their pass rates are.

Distance

This one sounds obvious - but perhaps not for obvious reasons. I considered two schools an hour away from where I live, but discounted both of them. The hourly rates - and therefore overall cost - was a little lower than the schools closest to me. One of them also offered a percentage discount if you bulk-bought hours in advance, and I knew their reputation was outstanding (my best mate did his PPL there, and went on to do his ATPL, commercial, multi-engine, instrument and multi-crew co-ordination training with them before successfully gaining a job at a major airline.) But when you factor in travel time, and the fact the weather can not only differ but also change in the time it takes you to drive an hour up the road, you could end up making a few wasted journeys.

Availability

I touched upon this briefly above, but availability works in hand with regularity. While it’s not guaranteed, you are more likely to spend less overall if you fly more regularly as you’ll retain information better and have to spend less time refreshing on things you learned before. If your intention is to fly once or twice a week, then can the flight school accommodate this? Obviously most schools will be busier during the weekends.

What made me choose Cambridge Aero Club?

Firstly, I’m not sponsored by Cambridge Aero Club to say this (though am open to offers!) They have an insane reputation as one of, if not the longest-running flight school in the world, successfully putting many pilots through their PPL who have gone on to have successful careers in aviation through further progression.

My choice was not based on cost - I compared 6 schools in total, and they were actually the most expensive in terms of hourly rates. They have a good, well-maintained fleet of Cessna 172 SP aircraft, are a fully approved training organisation and have a fantastic reputation. There’s also the added benefit that they currently operate at Cambridge airport which provides a full ATC service, meaning more confidence on the radios. The airport is also a mere 10-15 minutes away, meaning that it wasn’t too much trouble if I had a cancellation and I was there, but it was also helpful for last minute bookings because a slot had become available and I was able to fly.

They charge “brakes to brakes” so I’ve definitely lost money being sat holding for other aircraft. One of my lessons I recall joking with my instructor saying I thoroughly enjoyed spending £32 sat at the hold, but in reality you have to be ready to accept aviation costs money.

I could also do all of my ground exams in-house, rather than having to go elsewhere to do them. Less stress, less travel, less hassle.

Crucially, their membership fees at £155 (it’s just gone up slightly) per year included landing fees, which - even at a discounted rate by being a member of a Cambridge pilot’s initiative - saves an eyewatering sum. Cambridge currently charges £30 per landing, so by lesson 6 you’ve already saved money! There are also winter seminars, generally free for members. I’ve attended a few of them and they definitely provide food for thought, as well as really useful information to help advance your knowledge and make you a safer pilot. They also host an annual GASCo event (GASCo run these across the country) - I’ve attended two of them now, and recommend pilots new and old do so.

When you take into consideration the membership benefits, location and reputation, flying with Cambridge Aero Club most likely saved me money overall.

Almost a year after completing my PPL course with them, I’ve just started my restricted instrument rating course - IR(R) - and will be shortly resuming my night rating training.

If you want a flight school with a big focus on safety, who know how to get someone from zero hours to licensed, and you’re in the Cambridge area, then definitely check them out - www.cambridgeaeroclub.com