Here in Southwestern British Columbia, aspiring pilots have many training options for the private pilot license (PPL). Spend a little time on the AvCanada forums and you’re bound to come away with more questions than answers. Transport Canada has a good document on How to Select a Flying School that I recommend, but I think the flaw is that it culminates in the choosing of a school.
Don’t choose. You’re not marrying the school.
Instead, be open to change. You’re about to splash out hard earned dollars on training. If you’re not happy with the school, the instructor, the aircraft, or whatever… then move on. You can talk about your concerns with the school (generally a good idea) or simply vote with your feet. But if you’re not happy, grab your Pilot Training Record (PTR) and find somewhere else.
So, what should you be thinking about? The Transport Canada document is good but here are a few of the things I think you should be considering in your PPL journey and how I came to my decision between schools at Squamish (CYSE), Boundary Bay (CZBB), Pitt Meadows (CYPK), and Langley (CYNJ).
- Instructors: Without question, instructors are the most important part of the equation. No other factor makes up for them. They need to be competent, obviously. But here’s the rub. You are a know-nothing student! You can’t tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. I liked my first instructor but I honestly didn’t know if he was good or bad. I don’t think there’s a way for a new PPL student to tell. What I did benefit from was flying with different instructors early in my training and that gave me more confidence in their abilities. If I were to do it again, I would take a familiarization flight and get a PTR started at a school and then try another couple of instructors at different schools and then pick one to start diving a bit deeper with. All the hours are loggable toward your training and I think you’ll have a much better feel for their quality after flying with them.
- School Philosophy: Many of the local flight schools make their money by pumping large numbers of pre-professional students through their licenses so they can immediately sit in the right seat of a 737 and turn on the autopilot shortly after take-off. There’s nothing wrong with that (although I kind of fear those pilots) but you should consider whether the school’s philosophy fits your goals. For me, I’m flying for fun and adventure, and will likely spend 99% of my aviation activities as a single pilot in small aircraft without significant automation. A school that focuses on stick and rudder skills and generally not turning myself into a smoking hole in the ground is the priority for me.
- Airport Proximity to Practice Areas: Where are the practice areas in relation to your chosen training airport? Early on in your flight training you will be focused on “airwork” activities. This generally involves flying to the designated practice area, performing maneuvers and then returning. If it takes 0.4 hrs to travel there and back (12 min each way), you’re spending $80 (at an example dual rate of $200) for transit time where someone at a smaller uncontrolled field might only be spending $20. A good instructor will try to ensure that the time is not totally unproductive, of course, but those are real dollars out of your pocket.
- Airport Proximity to You: This one is kind of obvious. A closer airport is better for a lot of reasons. Less time in the car is great. And the weather will deteriorate on you cancelling a lesson even though it looked good when you left the house. But I would encourage you to look a bit more broadly. The closest airport to me, Boundary Bay, is a 30min drive. But it involves a major pinch point tunnel so it can easily turn into a 90min drive with traffic. Pitt Meadows and Langley are 40min in good traffic but also suffer from heavy rush hour traffic. Squamish is further afield at 50min but is significantly more consistent of a drive.
- Tailwheels: PPL training in a tailwheel aircraft at a similar price to a C172 would be a major plus, although I don’t know of any such place that does that in this region. My current school has a tailwheel airplane, but it’s quite expensive compared to a C172 so I’ve stuck with the Cessna.
Here’s some things I think are less important:
- Technologically Advanced Aircraft (aka fancy glass panel avionics): The PPL is focused on visual flying, and that means using that really big plexiglass window-like instrument in front of you. I appreciate the cool-factor of a glass panel but I just don’t think it’ll make a difference in your flying skills. You can learn a fancy panel later. I have also read it is more difficult to transition from glass to round gauges than the other way around, but I don’t know about that one. It seems like the re-learning curve would be similar to me.
- Weather: It kind of is what it is. Somehow you’ll make it work even with fickle Vancouver springs and falls. I have managed to fly out of Squamish when Pitt Meadows and Boundary Bay are grounded with fog. And I have been grounded by rainstorms trapped up Howe Sound when Vancouver was severe clear. If your priority is getting things done fast, the way to do it is to train full-time during the summer and bang it off. For everyone else, just deal with the weather you’ve got.
- Uncontrolled vs. Controlled Airports: I was disproportionately worried about this before my PPL and now I think it’s mostly a non-issue, with a bit of an edge to uncontrolled airports. My original thinking was that I lived in Vancouver, the closest airports to me are controlled, and therefore I should learn where I have to talk to controllers from the beginning. But that mic button is awfully and oddly intimidating and so I think the edge goes to uncontrolled fields because a) you can learn to talk on the radio without worrying so much about being admonished by a controller (don’t worry, your instructor make up for it) and b) the fields often have less traffic and that gives you more flexibility for non-standard maneuvers. And while it’s technically possible to get your PPL without ever talking to a controller, my instructors ensured that both transiting controlled airspace and landing at a controlled field was part of the curriculum. You’ll learn how to talk to them.
- Cost: Whoa, cost isn’t important? Well, it is but I believe this mostly takes care of itself if you find the good instructors and a school that fits you. Flight training is a competitive industry and you’ll discover that rates at different schools are pretty close to each other (do check for any “hidden” costs). What’s going to save you money is effective instruction and generally not messing about.
Regardless of school, the most important thing is to get out flying. It’s awesome and my only regret is that I didn’t start sooner.