One of the questions I've been asked over the years is where is the best flight school? And of course, my comeback is the one I'm working for at the time Well, no not really, the real key is defining best from the students standpoint.As a matter of professionalism, I think we owe it to our students to present the big picture, rather than to harp our own wares so to speak.
Now some would take issue with this, as it could mean loosing a potential student. However, such honestly could also mean gaining a customer for life. Remember, a specific rating is only a small portion of a flight student’s education. Aviation is a life long educational process, and not to think down the road has the potential to leave a huge amount of money on the table. Its much less work to sell additional ratings, or recurrent training, to known existing customers, than to bring in new clients off the street.
I advise potential students to look at their end goal, and then tailor their training options around that goal. I have flown with many a pilot from the military, the traditional FBO, the universities, and the academy route. Each brings something different to the table, and I have met many fine pilots, irrespective of training background. Where one runs into disconnects is when one trains in an environment with differing values from ones end goal.
I have also suggested that some initial training be accomplished at a relevant local FBO, no matter what the end goal is. This can be useful, especially for the younger person, who has yet to experience much flight time. I think people need a certain level of actual experiences to either reinforce, to modify, or to rule out a goal. Jumping in head first into a full blown program, without at least somewhat of an understanding of it, can lead to discouragement, a waste of money, or worst of all, an unsafe pilot.
The key however is relevancy. A local FBO with an ex-military instructor would not be the best choice for one entering a fast track civilian program, nor would a retired airline pilot with no military experience provide the best fit for a military flight school candidate.
Since not every CFI has had experience with different paths to flight training, lets take a look at each one separately. The distinct ways to obtain training are traditional FBO, university flight programs, the military, and academies. The Civil Air Patrol fits in there as well, somewhat between the military, and the traditional FBO, although from what I understand, they do not provide initial training.
The academies generally have a very good reputation for initial airline applicants. They also have a poor reputation for producing well rounded pilots outside of this arena. Many academy track CFI's have to go through additional training to get up to speed in this regard, and are often criticized in general aviation. Even corporate pilots from an academy can run into troubles, as they have not focused on the other aspects of aviation, including customer service, business issues, and dealing with the public. Actual flying operations are only one part of the job of a corporate pilot, yet for some, they are the sole emphasis of a fast track program.
The university programs have the potential to produce a much more rounded pilot than the academies, if by nothing else, the 4 years needed to go through such a program. Life experience and general education outside of aviation does make a difference. In addition, the networking opportunities provided, and the institutions name recognition can help one get in the door. However, some programs take a very conservative route in training, such that their IFR students rarely get hit with major in your face IFR, nor do the students get exposed to real life short, and soft fields or adverse weather. Another potential negative, is the flight major. If one decides an aviation career is not for them or has medical issues at a young age, the resulting niche subject major can make a career change more problematic.
One of the key advantages or disadvantages of the FBO route is the emphasis on single pilot flight planning and operations. Another aspect is the wide variance in FBO programs. Some teach seat of the pants flying, others procedures similar to the airlines, others as a preparation to military flight school, and others have varying combinations of the above. Again, this can be a huge positive or a negative depending on ones goals, and the FBO or flight instructor, which is selected for training. In addition, FBO training provides can advantage of time and cost. They don't have the overhead of the other methods, so costs should be lower, and the longer time to train exposes students to a much wider range of conditions, than a fast track program. Such diversity has the potential to be very good, but unfortunately, some outfits can slip through the cracks as well. We've all heard of, or experienced, distracted instructors, impossible scheduling, aircraft availability issues, high instructor turnover, or poorly maintained aircraft, that can give FBO’s a bad name.
The military is attractive from a cost standpoint, but the time commitment, and the potential for death or injury due to active combat keeps some folks away. It’s also attractive from an equipment standpoint. You get to fly equipment that is outside the realm of 99% of all the other pilots in the world. The downside is that unless you choose a life long military career, civil aviation, after the ends of ones time of service can become pretty boring. This can be more of an issue for the fighter pilot, than the guy who flies a fuel tanker, or cargo. There are also regulatory, and additional training issues to deal with when transitioning from military to civilian. For most people they are pretty minor, but not all. It is something to consider.
The other thing brought to consider is time to train and cost. Paying as you go, or saving up and paying cash for training is going to take a lot longer. Fast track programs can get you in a seat making money much faster than the other ways. However, many a grad of a fast track program has suffered financial difficulties, when huge debt loads, are combined with a lay off. As a result caution may be advised should this path be chosen.
In summary, the question, what is the best flight school, does not warrant a simple cut and dried answer. It’s really a function of ones goals. By the same token, a change in goals, or flight schools doesn't mean starting over either. It just means a little more time and money may be needed to get there. Many pilots have, and many will continue to do so. There is a lot of diversity in aviation, and one size indeed doesn't fit all.