Choosing a Flight School

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I'm in the process of trying to find a good flight school to begin learning how to fly and
obtain my private pilot license. I live in Los Angeles, and am somewhat concerned about
crowded airspace. There are schools out in the desert or in Santa Barbara that look good,
but then I've got a four-hour drive to get to and from a two hour lesson. I'd be curious in
other folks' opinion of the benefits or drawbacks of learning to fly in potentially crowded
airspace. Am I being overly cautious?

Also, I'd appreciate any thoughts on questions to ask and things to look for in finding a high-
quality flight school and instructor. Thanks.

-- Justin Toner, September 13, 2009


You're eventually going to fly in crowded airspace so you might as well get used to it from the first lesson. If you're concerned about safety you can go to a school at one of LA's many towered airports. The control tower should keep everyone adequately separated. I would start at the nearest airport to your house and take an intro lesson. Then start working your way to farther airports if you're not 100 percent happy with your instructor or the maintenance. What to look for?

You want good maintenance and a good instructor. For maintenance, ask to see the aircraft logbook. If the entries are complete and clear the mechanic is probably pretty good. For the instructor, the best ones are usually those who are a bit older and/or who are not simply flying in order to build hours and get to the "real job" (airline pilot; a long way off now for most of the young guys). The best instructors will be able to talk you through virtually every maneuver on your first lesson. The mediocre ones will be on the controls a lot.

Visit two schools and fly with two instructors. Definitely save the trips to the desert for when you want more specialized training that you can't get in LA.

-- Philip Greenspun, September 13, 2009

That makes sense. Thank you for your help Philip.

-- Justin Toner, September 14, 2009

I agree with Philip here. My cousin learned to fly at Sunrise Aviation out of John Wayne-Orange County, and had a very good experience. I encouraged him to learn in the same environment in which he would later be flying with his family. You may spend a bit more waiting in queue for takeoff clearance at a busy towered airport, but having an instructor with you in the congested environment will be invaluable. During training, you will have plenty of opportunities to exit the crowded airspace and practice at smaller airports.

As for choosing the right school, take a minimum of two "intro" flights with different CFI's (even within the same school) -- more if possible, and try to meet with the chief instructor too. You will be spending a great deal of time in a small, somewhat intense space with your CFI. You'll want to make sure you absolutely trust him or her, communicate well, and get along! Do not worry about "hurt feelings" if you choose one CFI over another -- we are professionals, and we want a "good fit" too!

Lastly, experience alone is not a determinant of good instruction. Some older CFI's might be burned out, while new CFI's might make up for their lesser experience with more diligence and enthusiasm. I agree with Philip that you'll want to avoid a "time-builder" gunning for the airlines, if it seems his or her heart is not into teaching. Definitely avoid a nervous CFI that "rides the controls" all the time -- within reason, you need to be able to learn from your mistakes, and not be left wondering if the instructor was "helping" on that last landing!

-- Jane Carpenter, September 14, 2009


My first instructor was a young guy who would always manipulate the yoke on his side to make the plane do what he wanted instead of talking me through it, stalls, landing, etc. This was frustrating and I felt like I was not really learning how to fly the plane.

Then I transferred to a 70+ year-old retired airline pilot, longtime instructor and couldn't believe the difference. I learned how to land without his input in one lesson. Another observation is that these high-time instructors (I've had two now) have been flying small planes for so long that they are just not afraid of much, so they will really let you screw it up before they do anything. This is good because you learn how to fly the plane by catching yourself and making the necessary corrections yourself. I'd recommend finding a grey haired instructor at a local field that you get along with and I think you'll really enjoy learning to fly!

Another observation is that so much of the time you devote to learning to fly involves "not flying": driving to and from the airport, pre-flighting the plane, flight planning, and book work that you should definitely try to do it close to home if you can, thus minimizing the "non-flying" part.

Another method that you might look into is the accelerated programs that can have you with your PPL in 3 weeks. This would work well for the motivated student who had 3 solid weeks they could devote and the money to pay for it all up front, as opposed to over several months. Typically you complete your book work and written exam prior to beginning this program.

-- Eric Whiteman, September 16, 2009

Phil definitely nailed it earlier when he said the best instructors don't have to constantly be grabbing the controls. My instructor did just that quite often when I began helicopter training and it only made me feel frustrated. I even asked him to talk me through some procedures and he did it once or twice before reverting back to the "explain briefly then grab" technique. I found out later that I was his first-ever beginner student! He had mainly given seasoned, private pilots instructions on upgrading their licenses to commercial. He had never (before me) had to start out with a true beginner.

-- Mark Dalton, September 18, 2009

You might also look into a Flying Club, if there is one available locally. There is a flying club in Boise that has instructor rates of only $32/hour. Of course, you are paying a monthly membership fee of $80, but the first $25 of that is credit back to you to rent club aircraft. This gives you the opportunity to train in multiple aircraft, and several students have obtained their licenses for around $6,000 or less. A Cessna 172 can be rented for $73/hour wet rate, which makes it simple because you're not adding fuel costs to the equation. The OTHER benefit is that included in the monthly dues you have insurance to fly club aircraft (you are added to the club's policy), so you do not need to obtain a separate insurance policy unless you are flying aircraft the club does not own.

-- Lee Pounds, September 30, 2009

Here�s my two cents� on Russell Aviation.

I signed up for their Accelerated Instrument Course in the spring of 2008, and was planning to take the course in October of that year. To say I was excited about my training would be an understatement. Mickey Russell seemed like a good guy on the phone. His prices were reasonable. The limited information I could find online from former students was universally positive.

Between the time I signed up for the course and the time I was scheduled to take the class, I accepted a job offer in another state. Since I didn�t know when I would be able to take two weeks away from my new job, I decided to cancel the class, which I did with three months� notice, well within the timeframe stipulated in the agreement I had signed.

After two years, countless emails, and numerous promises to refund my $1,000, I was recently informed by Mickey Russell that he had �absolutely no intention� of repaying any part of my deposit. When I asked why, he promptly hung up the phone on me.

I�m not saying don�t check out Russell Aviation. By all means, do. And if you end up liking them, then sign up for one of their classes.

But if you�re using forums like this to help you decide where to train, then it�s always useful to know as much as you can about schools - both good and bad.

I know I would have appreciated it two years ago.

-- Scott Habetz, October 7, 2010