WHAT TO KNOW WHEN CHOOSING YOUR FLIGHT TRAINING PROVIDER
There are many potential paths to earning a pilot certificate, and many flight training providers. It is critical that you choose a flight training environment that sets you up for the future you envision, and that matches your learning style and risk tolerance.
In other words, one that is best for you.
You’ll probably only have sufficient expertise to make a perfect decision after you’ve been through a training pipeline…when it no longer really matters. However, there are significant financial, safety, and career implications for choosing incorrectly, so you are wise to invest time at the beginning to research your options. You may not get it perfect, but you can minimize your risk and improve your chances of success.
You may eventually conclude that Cornerstone is not a perfect fit for you. That’s OK, because we’ve been doing this long enough to know that we are not the best fit for every prospective student. In the meantime, why not take advantage of our considerable experience to help streamline your search for your best solution? Call one of our counselors at either location (SLC 801-355-2244 or OGD 801-622-1222), or read the information below for a list of things to consider when interviewing flight training providers.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
This checklist will help ensure that you have asked all the important questions and have gotten useful answers in return. Read the article linked to each subject for greater insights into why it matters, and how to interpret the facts you uncover.
Your Goals: Ask yourself what you wish to do with your pilot qualifications. Is your goal to become a commercial airline pilot? Or are you learning to fly to enhance your business efficiency? Or just to cross another challenge off your bucket list? Cornerstone has FAA-certified training courses and customized instruction to enable any future aviator to realize their dreams.
To become a professional pilot, a student pilot must complete three courses in this order:
- Private Pilot
- Instrument Rating
- Commercial Pilot
Those who wish to become airline pilots frequently add:
- Certified Flight Instructor
In general, the flight training industry refers to full-time students who want to become professional pilots as “traditional students.” The majority of these students hope to work for a major airline. Thus, much of your research into flight training will uncover providers and pathways suited for the traditional student with airline aspirations. In fact, for many flight training providers, this is their only option. CSA has programs that will allow the student to meet all the training milestones as quickly as their aptitude and dedication allow, but will never force them into a “one-size-fits-all” schedule.
We refer to airline-bound students who don’t have the resources (time or money) to pursue their dreams full-time as “non-traditional students.” We craft individual programs for each one that dovetails with the other demands on their time. This flexibility in scheduling allows the non-traditional student to continuously make progress towards their aviation goals while managing work, school, and family demands.
Non-traditional students also include those who only intend to fly for their own business or pleasure, who choose one or more courses from these CSA offerings:
- Recreational Pilot
- Private Pilot
- Instrument Rating
Many flight schools accept only traditional students, who are often called “Zero to Hero” programs. One of Cornerstone’s core values is to keep the customer’s desires as the primary focus of every decision. Recognizing that many students change their goals during training, we help you choose training paths that keep all your options open. Many of our non-traditional students came to us seeking only the bucket-list challenge of earning a Private Pilot’s license, and end-up loving it so much they switch careers to become a professional pilot! We know how to optimize the use of your hard-earned flight time and certifications as a jump-start on a new path.
Your Level of Commitment: Ask yourself how much time, money, and effort you can commit to your training. Cornerstone is flexible, and can craft customized training plans for anyone: those who can accomplish ten training events per week, and those who only have time for one.
Cornerstone is flexible, and can craft customized training plans for anyone: those who are ultra-motivated and want accomplish ten training events per week, and those who only have time for one.
- CSA can instruct all courses under either Part 61 and Part 141 rules, depending on the desires of the student. In general, the student will spend a lot less time and money to achieve certification under Part 141, but there are many factors to consider. Learn more about Part 61 vs. Part 141.
- A Private Pilot rating requires at least 40 flight hours when the training is done under Part 61 rules, although in reality the average student nationally logs 70 hours by certification (most CSA students complete in about 50 hours). For comparison, an FAA-certified course taught under Part 141 rules requires only 35 hours, and CSA’s certified course is programmed for 42 hours. The reason that most students require more than the FAA-mandated minimums is because those rules were set in the 1950s when most instruction was done in basic airplanes (many without radios) at airfields without control towers. Since then, both airplanes and airspace have become much more complex, there is more avionics technology to master, and the standards for certification have continued to become more demanding. All of this demands more training time.
- The training path to a Commercial Pilot rating – meaning that you can now be paid to fly – requires at least 250 flight hours when the training is done under Part 61 rules, or about 180 hours if done under Part 141 rules for CSA’s FAA-approved courses. Most people can achieve these certifications in the minimum times.
- In general, flight training success is optimized by scheduling 3-5 flights per week (5-10 flight hours), with ground training events and personal study scheduled around the flights. This helps to ensure that:
- Each flight builds on the proficiency gained in the previous event, rather than wasting the first half-hour of the follow-on flight re-familiarizing the student with the aircraft; and
- There is sufficient time between flights to assimilate what was learned in the prior flight, and to adequately prepare for the next flight.
- Under typical weather conditions, a typical traditional student can expect to complete all three courses in less than 12 months. A school may advertise that it can complete the training in only 8 months – we have done it ourselves – but that requires an intense level of study by the student, and a lot of luck with weather and aircraft availability. In our experience, 8 months is too aggressive, and the fast pace leaves most students with critical knowledge gaps that tend to show up during FAA Practical Tests and aircraft emergencies.
- Once certified as a Commercial Pilot, there are many options for earning a living. You can give flight instruction (the choice most graduates make), haul freight, perform aerial tours or mapping, operate business aircraft, fight forest fires, become a flying law enforcement officer for the local, state, and federal agencies, or transport people via on-demand charter. And much more.
- By law, you will need a minimum of 1500 flight hours to fly passengers for a scheduled airline service (there is an exception – read more about it here [Links to 9. Type of Training Operation]). Over the last decade (until 2020, when COVID-19 dramatically disrupted the trend), regional airlines were hiring nearly every qualified candidate as soon as they reached the minimum hours.
- The majority of Commercial Pilot graduates bridge the gap between their 250 hours at certification (180 hours for Part 141 graduates) and the 1500 hours they need to apply as regional airline pilots, by flight instructing. This requires at least one of the following additional certifications, which will add a bit more time and expense to the training path:
- Certified Flight Instructor (CFI)
- Certified Flight Instructor – Instrument (CFII)
- Certified Multi-Engine Instructor (MEI)
- In Utah, a CFI can expect to accrue flight time (paid for by the student!) at about 50 hours/month (December to February) to 120 hours/month (other months) at a well-established school like CSA. This means instructing for 12-18 months in order to log enough flight time to meet the regional airline minimums.
- Not every commercially-rated pilot aspires to be an airline pilot. Some know from the beginning that they have other dreams, and others who might have initially intended to fly for the airlines fall in love with the lifestyle or type of flying that they experience while building time to meet the requirements.
- The major airlines typically hire the most experienced regional airlines pilots. Their need for pilots depends on their own growth, plus the loss of their own pilots as they reach mandatory retirement age (currently 65). The airlines are projected to hire hundreds of thousands of pilots over the next 20 years, but there will be variations in demand year-to-year.
- The regional airlines typically hire the most experienced pilots they can find among commercial pilots currently serving as flight instructors, freight haulers, etc. Their need for pilots depends on how many they lose to the major airlines, their own growth, and the loss of their own pilots as they reach mandatory retirement age (not every regional airline pilot desires to move up to the majors).
- In general, the professional pilot industry is built on seniority. Thus, for two students who started ground school on the same day:
- The one who flies more regularly will earn a Commercial Pilot Certificate sooner;
- Which allows them to be hired into a paid position sooner;
- Which usually allows them to accrue flight time at someone else’s expense sooner, and at a faster rate per month than they did as a student pilot;
- Which helps them reach airline hiring minimums sooner;
- Where, for the rest of their tenure with the airline, their earlier date of hire gives them first choice over those hired later for preferred bases, aircraft types, upgrade to Captain, trip schedules, and greater protection against furloughs.
Safety Record: Aviation is an unforgiving business, so having a frank discussion about a provider’s safety record is crucial. Since its founding in 2003, CSA has never experienced an injury or fatality during training. Some schools experience accidents nearly every year, while others go decades between mishaps.
Aviation is an unforgiving business, so having a frank discussion about a training provider’s safety record is crucial. Since its founding in 2003, CSA has never experienced an injury or fatality during training. Some schools experience accidents nearly every year, while other go decades between mishaps. The difference is that some schools just assume – and accept – that accidents will inevitably occur during flight training, while the safer schools reject that approach. Instead, they apply strict risk management methodologies to achieve predictably safe outcomes.
For the better schools, an effective safety culture is designed and implemented by experienced risk managers, which usually means veteran aviators and mechanics trained in state-of-the-art safety management systems through the military or a major airline. The perpetuation of the system requires continuous instructor standardization training and periodic formal performance reviews. It also requires that experienced decision-makers be on-site every day to supervise flight operations.
Most training providers hire their own graduates, and pay low wages that the beginning instructor accepts in order to gain the flight hours required for the next career milestone. When they meet those minimums, they move on. The problem with this rapid turnover of the staff is a continual loss of corporate wisdom, and a dilution of its risk management philosophy. Look for a stable core of experienced instructors who don’t have to re-learn last year’s lessons. Ask how often the provider conducts company-wide pilot standardization training.
The best way to gauge a provider’s safety philosophy and record is to ask pointed questions.
- Ask them directly. A good provider will be frank about their past problems, knowing that you will probably find news of their accidents on the web, anyway.
- If you don’t have faith in their responses, find other pilots on the airport or in competing schools who might know of their history.
- Ask the airport manager or employees. They are an excellent source of historical data for the airport, and have no obligation or incentive to withhold or falsify an answer.
- Ask the person – probably a former student of the training provider? – who referred you to them in the first place. They probably won’t have a long history with the entity, but they can at least tell you about recent problems and any change of personnel that would affect safety.
When you collect the information, please remember this: Luck plays only a minor role in aviation safety. A training provider with a series of mishaps in a short period is demonstrating a serious lack of leadership and knowledge of aviation safety practices.
Experienced Leadership On Site: There’s a good reason your fifth-grade teacher was not a sixth-grader, and the principal wasn’t a seventh-grader. You are at a disadvantage if all of your school’s current teachers were last year’s students. You’re not joining a social fraternity to make friends. You’re looking for a resource to give you the credentials and wisdom necessary to succeed as a professional pilot.
Look for a school where a significant portion of the active faculty has earned their grey hairs escaping scary predicaments in their flying careers.
Could we agree that the United States Navy and Air Force might know a thing or two about flight training and aviation safety? How about United, Delta, Southwest, or Skywest Airlines? Cornerstone’s active leadership and many of its instructors come from those expert organizations: current active-duty, reserve, and retired military; current and retired airline pilots; and experienced aviators who have flown cargo, fire-fighting and scenic flights all over the world. Their unparalleled training and vast experience have built CSA’s safety and operational processes into the best in the industry.
Consider carefully before investing your time, money and professional reputation in a school staffed only by their own new graduates. Those instructors have no other reference for comparison, and no fellow instructors with real world flying experience to mentor them. It’s not their fault that they can’t see the gaps in the school’s teaching methods and their own aviation knowledge. Those weaknesses then get passed along to each new class of students, who become the instructors, who perpetuate the problem. Failing the Practical Test check ride is not the worst result of those knowledge deficits. Passing the check ride, only to have that weakness revealed later when there are passengers on board, is the real problem.
There’s another benefit to choosing a school with instructors who have “been there and done that.” They usually aren’t flight instructing because they need the money, and they aren’t there because they need more flight hours to move up to a better-paying gig. They instruct because they’re passionate about aviation. So, unlike at a school where everyone is young and trying to move up, they’re not competition for your next job opportunity; they’re your connection to it.
Longevity in the Industry: Experience matters. Your money should help you learn how to fly and launch your own career, not help your trainer advance his own career or keep him in business while he figures-out how to do flight instruction properly.
When done correctly, flight training is terribly hard enterprise to succeed at long-term because of the significant regulatory, financial, and safety requirements. It takes years of education, collaboration, and trial and error for a flight school to figure out how to provide flight training safely and effectively. At the end of the day, there’s very little profit for even the most experienced and efficient operators. This is why so many operations – especially new ones – cut corners. The student becomes an unwitting partner in the business, risking her life, money, and career on an entity that has not yet survived the test of time.
The most recent decade-long airline-hiring boom vacuumed-up every qualified pilot the training industry could create. Seeing that demand, many new providers entered the industry for the perceived glamour and profits, most with no prior training or business experience. This was possible because the threshold for entering the market is low: give a newly-certified flight instructor access to an airplane, and you’ve got a business. With cheap money available for airplanes and student loans, and a job waiting for every graduate, it was hard to fail.
Well, it was hard to fail until COVID caused the airlines to stop hiring in 2020. Robust hiring will resume (as it always does), but until it does many newer and poorly-managed schools are struggling. Unlike a retail store that telegraphs its imminent failure through employee departures and declining selections, when a flight school fails, there is usually no warning. One day operations look normal, and the next day they’ve ceased. The airplanes are grounded and then repossessed by the lending bank. The school is unable to obtain or pay for insurance. The outfit is shutdown by the FAA or the airport authority. This leaves the enrolled students scrambling to start again elsewhere, usually having lost a bunch of money and having fallen behind their peers in the race for jobs.
Look for a school that has been in the business continuously for at least a decade, and/or whose active leaders have survived prior major aviation industry upheavals like those that happened in 2001, 2008, and 2020.
Pricing: CSA’s programs can take you from zero experience to making decent money as a professional pilot for less than $68,000, which includes every expense for its FAA-certificated ground and flight training. Compare that to other un-accredited schools that charge more than $93,000 to reach the same career milestone. How’s that even possible?
- Some training providers charge more because they advertise themselves as “an exclusive training resource” for one regional airline. First, that is never true, because no airline will tie its own hands by hiring only from one provider. When the airline needs pilots, they want the freedom to hire qualified graduates from any source. When they don’t, they don’t want the obligation of hiring that one provider’s graduates. As a student, be wary of affiliating yourself with a school that has ties to only one airline as that will severely limit your options. CSA has numerous affiliations to the regional and major airlines, but purposefully has not entered into exclusive arrangements or taken funding from any of them so as to provide the maximum opportunities for our graduates.
- Training providers conducting training under Part 61 should cost more than CSA’s Part 141 syllabi because of the extra training hours required. True, but not $25,000 more. CSA students who choose Part 61 training must bear that additional expense, too, but in practice it adds only about $16,000 to the total expense of becoming a commercial pilot and flight instructor. Learn more about Part 61 vs. Part 141.
On the other end of the spectrum, be very concerned when a training provider’s hourly pricing falls below these norms:
- Aircraft rental hourly rates should be $175, plus or minus $25. The hourly operating costs for training aircraft don’t vary much from model to model, so there is no secret sauce that would allow an owner to provide a safe aircraft for much less. The way some cut corners include:
- not properly maintaining the aircraft, including failing to perform preventative maintenance.
- not properly insuring the aircraft.
- not collecting and reserving money to replace the engine, propeller, governor, and other major components as they wear out.
You may conclude that the savings you realize during your training is very important, and that the eventual cost to the owner in the future is his problem. However, you don’t know how far out that future is. All of these shortcuts represent a significant potential risk to you, either in safety or training interruption.
- Flight Instructor hourly rates should be $70 plus or minus $10. Free-lance instructors will work for less because they are probably avoiding these expenses that are typically paid by a legitimate flight school out of the hourly rate they charge:
- Liability insurance to flight instruct;
- Worker’s Compensation insurance;
- Sales tax on the transaction, which is required for flight instruction unless the training provider has a Sales Tax Exemption as an approved higher education organization;
- Employer’s wage burden for Social Security and Unemployment Insurance;
- Business Licensing fees; and
- Safety and Standardization training.
While most of the legal risk here is on the instructor, there could be problems for the student, as well, for participating in illegal business transactions. That risk is admittedly low, but it could lead to a disruption in their training flow.
Bear in mind that a quality flight training provider has many expenses in creating an environment conducive to student safety, learning, and eventual success. These include:
- A permanent location for training and dispatch
- A team of Customer Service and Dispatch professionals
- Classrooms and briefing rooms conducive to learning
- Training aids, plus preflight planning and briefing supplies
- Flight planning computers and subscriptions
The costs of these essentials and amenities can only be covered from the revenue that comes from aircraft rental and instructor time. Therefore, a new student has to decide which is more important:
- The lowest price, with a bare-bones operation and additional risk; or
- The best training and safety, with appropriately higher prices.
All-Inclusive Fixed Price or Itemized Billing: Some schools guarantee completion of a course or program for a fixed price, meaning there are no additional charges for extra training. But why bet against yourself? Those fixed prices are often tens of thousands of dollars more than what the average student would ever actually spend on training at a school like CSA with an efficient syllabus. The provider has to set the price higher for everyone to ensure that they make money training below-average students.
If you are a student with average aptitude and dedication, you are most likely to complete the training in exactly the hours programmed into the approved syllabus. So, you’re far better off paying for just the actual training you require. In a year-long program, there may be an unplanned break in your training due to weather, illness, or the demands of life. That interruption may be long enough to justify a warm-up flight or two to get you back up to speed. Plus, there may be some maneuver or concept that takes you longer than the average student to master. $1,000 will buy you about 5 hours of additional training – which is much more than the majority of CSA students ever require – so there’s absolutely no reason to give a provider $10,000 extra unless you plan to be a really terrible student. View most current pricing with CSA.
Full Payment Up Front or Pay-As-You-Go: Some training providers require pre-payment of the entire program fee before the start of training. If the provider fails to deliver as promised, or just turns out to be a bad fit for the student, the customer is stuck. Don’t lose your leverage over the provider: It is never necessary to pre-pay in order to receive top-quality instruction. CSA’s ethic is to have the student pay only for training actually received. We believe in earning the privilege of enrolling you in your next course by exceeding your expectations on the prior one.
There are some big reasons for you to be wary of working with flight training providers who require big pre-payments in cash, or the execution of a Promissory Note in its place:
- They have control of your money or the debt instrument. This makes it complicated or impossible to change schools without either losing money or incurring demand for immediate repayment of the loan. This gives the school the power to accelerate or delay the training of the student with impunity.
- They may be using your money to operate the flight school. Many flight schools have operated essentially as Ponzi schemes, where the pre-payment of tuition money from later students is used to pay for the expenses associated with the training of earlier students. There are many examples of flight schools that took deposits, used the money to pay salaries, aircraft loans, and fuel bills, and then went defunct before the newer students ever received any value from their own pre-payments.
At CSA, we will take pre-payments on account only at the request of the customer. Typically, this is for their own convenience to avoid numerous billings during periods of intense flight training. If you choose to go somewhere else that requires pre-payment in order to secure a slot, negotiate to have the money held in a trust or escrow account (via a bank or an attorney) where the fiduciary can release money in intervals as it is earned by the school.
Type of Training Operation: What might work best for you? A private instructor? A flying club? A Pilot School? A university? They all have advantages and drawbacks, but you will have much greater funding options and career opportunities with a Pilot School or university, and a quicker path to earning money as a commercial pilot with a Pilot School.
Flight training providers come in several major classifications, each one with different pricing and risk factors. Your research should help you decide whether you want to train with a free-lance instructor, at an established certificated flight school, or something in between. Generally, providers fall into these classifications:
- Established, High-end, Certificated Flight Schools. These will give you the most structured training experience with the least risk – safety risk and risk of the school failing before your training is complete. They are not necessarily the most expensive option because many of them teach under Part 141 rules where the minimum flight hour experience for graduation is lower than other schools, which saves a lot of training expense. Certificated schools tend to have the best safety records because their training processes and aircraft maintenance are subject to constant FAA surveillance. Learn more about Part 61 vs. Part 141.
- Collegiate Flight Programs. These will also give you a structured training experience with the least risk – safety risk and risk of the school failing before your training is complete. However, because the training cycles are tied to the university academic year (and each quarter or semester), there is less opportunity to customize the flight training intensity. They are not necessarily the most expensive option because a) all of them teach under Part 141 rules like the certificated flight schools, and b) because the flight training expense is part of your cost of education, tuition assistance (e.g. FAFSA) can be used. The ground school fees are the same as class tuition, and the actual flight training is charged as lab fees. These programs tend to have great safety records, but there have been notable exceptions.
One of the options of a collegiate program is when a university affiliates with a certificated flight school to realize the best of both worlds: the university provides the academic training via remote learning for academic credit; and the flight school provides the actual flight training, also for academic credit. This provides a way for a student to get scholarship and student loan assistance with the costs because it’s a legitimate college degree program. It also provides for the student to apply credits earned in flight training towards one or more college degrees.
As an added benefit, graduates of some Collegiate Flight Programs, such as the affiliation between Cornerstone Aviation and Liberty University, qualify for their ATP certificate at 1,000 hours instead of 1,500 hours of flight time.
- Newer, uncertified flight training providers. There are many new entrants into the flight training market, and many do a very good job. Most have not been in business long enough to earn FAA certification for their programs, and some don’t desire to do so. The operations can most often be described as rotating groups of independent flight instructors teaching under Part 61 rules with no over-arching syllabus or standardization. These schools are not necessarily cheaper than more established training providers. There is always a higher risk of their failure during economic down-turns because many have not been around long enough to have weathered prior challenging periods in the industry.
- Flying clubs. Clubs operate in a hybrid manner that introduces some risk that for-hire operations – like established flight schools – don’t have. Specifically, the FAA considers all the club’s members to be owners of the aircraft in an expense-sharing arrangement. Therefore, the aircraft are not required to be maintained as though they were rented out to the public. This means they are subject only to Annual Inspections, not 100-hour Inspections as other rental aircraft are. However, a busy club may put many hundreds of hours on their airplanes in between those yearly inspections, and critical problems could develop in the meantime.
Another problem with clubs is that they vary in how they collect and reserve money for unscheduled maintenance and for the eventual replacement of engines, etc. Thus, the amount they charge themselves for each hour of aircraft use may look appealingly low, but it could be insufficient to allow the club to save for major expenses. That leads to periodic assessments that are typically divided equally among the members, not by their actual use of the assets. A student might get through all of her flight training paying a low hourly rental rate and quit before there are any assessments, or could get stuck with large assessment in the first month of her membership.
- Free-Lance instructors. There is great variability in the experience and teaching abilities of free-lance instructors. Many have honed their skills over decades of teaching, and continuously re-invest time and money into their own professional education. Others are merely newly-certified, inexperienced flight instructors who couldn’t get a position with an established flight school.
There is also great variability in the aircraft they teach in. Some instructors own their own aircraft, others rent the aircraft they teach in, or insist that you do. The one-off arrangements made between or among the instructor, aircraft owner, and student for flight training are ripe for inadvertent or deliberate violation of safety and business laws at the city, state, and federal level. These arrangements have the least oversight and supervision of all types of flight instruction, and the most risk-taking.
Things that every prospective flight student must keep in mind:
- Your flight training provider is likely to be your first employer as a commercial pilot. Since the first job for most commercial pilots is flight instructing, look closely at whether the provider you choose will be able to hire you when you graduate with CFI credentials. Many students are so focused on saving a few dollars during their training that they fail to consider the next career step. They discover too late that training with the cheapest flight training solution works against them when the job opportunities are with established flight schools. Schools typically hire from within, and if they hire from the outside, they want people who were trained in a structured flight school environment. Thus, it’s not just about what you pay for training, it’s more about how that training can repay you.
- The benefits of pedigreed flight training on your resume endure for the rest of your career. Sure, when the airlines are hiring, it might matter less, but it will always matter. In times of great demand for pilots, those with experience instructing at certificated schools have distinct advantage because they accrue flight time quicker. They are first in line for the airline jobs. In lean times, pilot selection boards and chief pilots value the structure of their training and their demonstrated ability to work within that same structured and accountable environment. They are the first pick for the best available jobs, and become even more competitive than their under-employed peers for the next opportunity.
In-Person Ground School: CSA encourages its students to exploit all available methods of learning: online distance learning; pre-recorded videos; web-based test preparation; software-based courses; and one-on-one ground instruction and tutoring. We incorporate all of those methods into our ground instruction. However, the core of our ground instruction is classroom-based, formal instruction led by experienced and certified Ground or Flight Instructors. The instructor serves as teacher, mentor, and advocate for the student, taking a personal interest in their progression and success.
Every new “advanced” teaching technique, no matter how successful, ends up proving that in-person instruction is superior to any other form of learning. It has been the teaching mode of choice from the scholars of Ancient Greece to the advanced training conducted by today’s elite military units and airlines. Is not an archaic concept; it’s a proven concept.
- In-person group instruction is also preferred by the military, the FAA, and collegiate partners, which is why it is required for Part 141 Pilot Schools. A CSA student does not have to participate in formal classroom ground school if they intend to train under Part 61. However, it is always recommended, and our experience shows that it saves a lot of individual ground training time with the flight instructor, which saves money. Learn more about Part 61 vs. Part 141.
- The Certified Instructor leading the class is the student’s best resource for identifying other resources, and then for putting that information into perspective. The instructor helps the student to prioritize, and to focus on the critical subjects. Students trying to navigate through the abundance of information on the web without help frequently get lost, because they don’t yet have the experience to know what really matters during that phase of their training.
- Instructors are expert in reframing the student’s technical knowledge into the real-world scenarios they are likely to encounter. Their experience helps the student understand not just the facts, but also how often the scenario is likely to occur in actual flying. This makes a better pilot, and also prepares the student for their FAA Practical Test. The FAA Examiners use scenario-based questions during the oral exam portion of the Test to uncover the candidate’s true level of understanding.
- CSA also has the capability to deliver live, classroom instruction to students remotely, which was used extensively during the initial period of COVIG-19 restrictions under temporary waiver from the FAA. For 2021, CSA doubled the number of ground school classes for the year, while restricting enrollment in each class to ensure safe social distancing. Masks are also required.
- In person instruction benefits the student because of their fellow students. Invariably, someone will ask a question that leads to more explanation and better understanding. More critically, the students make relationships that evolve into a mutually-supporting system that carries over into actual flight training.
Part 61 or Part 141: Early in your research, you will likely hear the terms “Part 61” and “Part 141.” Part 61 is a section of the FAA’s rules that governs the certification of a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) and the training of pilots. A CFI instructing under Part 61 does not need to be part of a school. Part 141 governs the process for certifying the entire Pilot School (as the FAA calls it) and its syllabi. CSA is one of Utah’s very few private Part 141 flight schools, but also conducts training under Part 61, whichever is better-suited for the student’s long-term goals. In general, Part 141 courses provide the quickest path to Commercial Pilot certification, the most post-graduation job opportunities, and the lowest expenses for the student.
For background, federal laws govern everything about aviation. All of the nation’s federal-level laws are published as the CODE OF FEDERAL REGULATIONS (CFR), which is divided into 50 major divisions (“Titles”) that represent broad areas subject to federal regulation. As pilots, the one we care about is: Title 14 – Aeronautics and Space. That major division is further divided into Subtitles, Chapters, Subchapters, Parts, Subparts, Sections, Paragraphs, and then six levels of Subparagraphs. Everything we do as pilots is governed by just a handful of parts, and for this discussion we care about these two:
- PART 61 – CERTIFICATION: PILOTS, FLIGHT INSTRUCTORS, AND GROUND INSTRUCTORS
- PART 141 – PILOT SCHOOLS
Part 61 governs the certification of the Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), and then his or her one-on-one training of each flight student. Independent flight instructors teach under these rules. A school that teaches only under the rules of Part 61 is essentially a business entity with one or a group of independent instructors using the privileges of their own CFI certifications. The CFI may conduct the training as he or she deems best, because the school itself has no approved courseware or curricula that it is required by the FAA to follow. At the end of training, the CFI endorses the student for the final Practical Test given by an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE).
Part 141 governs the certification of the entire school, including syllabi, courseware, instructor qualifications, training aircraft models, aircraft maintenance processes, physical facilities, simulators, record-keeping, and much more. The instruction is provided by CFI certified under Part 61, and then further certified to teach within the Part 141 Pilot School rules.
In a Part 141 certificated school, individual lessons must be conducted in accordance with the FAA-approved course flow, and everything must be documented in accordance with the FAA-approved processes. End of Stage and End of Course check flights are conducted by designated Check Instructors to ensure that the student has the requisite skills and knowledge to move on to the next stage, or to the FAA Practical Test. The school is subject to continuous FAA oversight and physical inspections by its assigned Principal Operations Inspector, an FAA employee.
There is certainly a great deal of additional training and administrative burden to managing a certificated flight school. However, the benefits of all the extra structure and oversight of a Part 141 program are:
- Safer Operations. Earning and maintaining FAA certification requires exceptional performance at every level of the school, which enhances overall safety. From the school’s leadership down to its dispatchers, employees are religiously monitoring safety-related processes to ensure that the operation remains fully in compliance with its own FAA-approved operational procedures, which are in excess of the basic rules published in 14 CFR 61 or 14 CFR 141.
- Quicker Completion. The FAA recognizes that the process results in superior pilots with less total flight time, and therefore lowers the minimum requirements for each approved course accordingly. For example, completing a Commercial Pilot Certification at CSA requires just 182 flight hours compared to the 250 hours required under Part 61 training.
- Lower Expense. Completing a Commercial Pilot Certification in just 182 flight hours compared to the 250 hours required under Part 61 training saves about $16,000 in training expense.
- Tuition Assistance Availability. Part 141 programs are eligible for scholarships, student loans, and VA benefits.
- College Credit. Part 141 programs can be combined with collegiate programs to earn college credit for ground school and flight training, and to reduce the federal minimum flight hour requirement for airline pilots (Restricted ATP) in some cases.
- Greater Efficiency. Due to the tighter Course structure and a specific plan for each Lesson, there is no wasted flight time. The End of Stage and End of Course Check Flights ensure that students know at all times how they are progressing. Learning gaps can be remedied before sending the student to the FAA Practical Test.
- Greater Employability. Not only do Part 141 schools hire almost exclusively those with a Part 141 background, but many other flight operations appreciate the discipline and rigor of such an experience, which gives graduates a competitive edge.
Insurance Coverage: Flying today is very safe, but mistakes DO happen. No matter how you intend to earn and use your pilot license, a basic understanding of aviation insurance is very important. Let us give you some of the essential knowledge you need to help you verify a prospective trainer’s insurance coverage. That will help you determine how well they are covered, and how much financial risk they are actually transferring to you. Just a few questions will also reveal what the expert risk analysts in the insurance world think of their past performance, and where they may be cutting corners today.
The primary purpose of insurance is to provide a team of experts and a pot of money to make things right after an accident occurs. Nobody wants to wait years for a bunch of lawsuits to get settled before moving on. There are several reasons new student pilots give for not wanting to wade into the subject:
- It’s too complicated. Not really. As a prospective professional pilot or aircraft owner, aviation insurance will now be part of your life, so the information in this section will be useful for the rest of your career. Ask us for help, or call the state-licensed professionals at Goldenwest Insurance Services for an expert, unbiased assessment of the information you obtain from other potential providers:
Mindy Smith 801-337-8341
Leslie Fitzgerald 801-337-8368
Brian Hoxer 801-786-8418
- It doesn’t matter, because either nothing will happen to me or the worst will happen, and then I won’t care. Actually, the majority of incidents are between the extremes. Most students graduate without ever damaging an airplane. But if it does happen, those “training aids” cost more than some houses, so seemingly minor dings can turn into five-figure repair bills. In bigger accidents, most people can walk away from the destroyed airplane because certified aircraft – such as those CSA uses for training – are built to protect the occupants. Thus, thankfully, you will be around to deal with replacing the airplane and compensating people on the ground who were affected. In the very rare case of a fatal accident, it’s good to have an insurance policy that takes care of the people you leave behind, especially if you’re the primary bread-winner.
- The insurance company will just try to avoid paying and I’ll get sued, anyway. Not so. Insurance policies are contracts, and the adjusters know what their legal obligations are. As professionals, they won’t foolishly spend extra money to start litigation they are sure to lose. They pay what is legitimately owed under the contract – usually as quickly as they can – to avoid litigation. It’s in everyone’s best interest to pay aircraft repair and hospital bills, satisfy other obligations, and get everyone back to business and on with their lives. Plus, believe it or not, most people in the insurance industry are compassionate, and get a lot of satisfaction from helping people recover from unfortunate events.
- Since I’m young and don’t have assets, I’ll just declare bankruptcy. Well, it’s not just your assets. It doesn’t take a brilliant lawyer to drag your richer relatives into the proceedings if they’ve provided funding for your training, co-signed for student loans, or even just provided lodging during your training. But even if those situations don’t apply, you have to lose the suit before there’s an actual judgment that will then have to get discharged by bankruptcy, a suit that could take years to resolve. In the meantime, you’ll spend a lot of money in legal fees and a lot of time dealing with the litigation – time you could’ve spent on happier pursuits and advancing your career. Then, after you spend more time and money on the legal misery of bankruptcy, you’ll have another ten years until that event is dropped from your credit history. During that decade, you won’t be able to borrow money for a car or a home, hold a security clearance, get a job with government or with a premium employer – like an airline – which was the reason you started training in the first place.
The bottom line is that you need to be properly insured to avoid that nightmare. Most of that coverage should be paid for by the training provider as part of your hourly fees. The only one you need to pay for provides a lot of piece of mind for less than $300 / year.
Here are the policies that matter:
- Aircraft Hull and Liability Policy (H&L). The premium for this is included in the hourly rental cost of the airplane.
- The Hull portion covers loss or damage to the airplane itself. The owner pays a premium amount based on the value of the aircraft, and if the aircraft is partially or totally damaged, the insurance carrier will pay for repairs or replacement up to the declared value of the airplane. Make sure that any Rental Agreement you sign does not make you liable for the costs of repair or replacement that exceed the deductible. Some rental agreements obligate you to cover the cost of replacement, but the owner has not insured the aircraft for that full amount. That makes you responsible for the deductible and the difference between the insured value and the true replacement cost.
- The Liability portion covers the aircraft owner – and if the coverage is truly proper – also covers you and your flight instructor for any damage you may cause to others during your operation of the aircraft.
In the event of a claim, there is a deductible that you will have to pay, and the smartest way to cover that is by purchasing a Non-Owned Policy (“Renter’s Policy) (discussed below). Ask for the Declaration Page(s) of the policy. Examining that will give you your first indication of the flight-training provider’s past history and risk management philosophy. Here’s what to look for:
- The policy should be for Rental and Instruction and not for Pleasure and Business. Many people in the flight instruction game cheat by obtaining only a Pleasure and Business (P&B) policy because the premium is much cheaper than for a Rental and Instruction (R&I) policy. This is more common among free-lancers and really small “schools.” However, if there is an accident, and money changed hands for renting the airplane from its owner, and/or the loss occurs during flight instruction, the carrier won’t pay because the aircraft was not being used as declared to the carrier. In other words, you are not insured. The carrier will discover this because the NTSB, FAA, and insurance carriers will inspect the logbooks of all pilots involved and will discover the entries for instruction given and received. CSA’s fleet is covered for R&I.
- The policy should provide a Combined Single Limit of Liability of at least $1,000,000. In many cases, especially for less-experienced training providers and those with poor loss histories, there will be a Sub-Limit of $100,000 per occupied seat. That means that on typical dual and solo flights you are not truly insured for $1,000,000, and there might not be enough money to solve your problems. $100K may sound like a lot of money, but if you successfully land on the highway after an engine failure (Congratulations!), but hit two cars – even if there are NO injuries – that may not be enough money to address that damage (So sorry.). So, you and your family will have to do so. CSA’s policy provides $1,000,000 of coverage with no sub-limits.
- A typical Deductible is about $10,000. If it’s higher than that, there are three potential reasons:
- the carrier’s underwriter considered the operation too risky and wouldn’t provide a lower deductible;
- the underwriter offered a lower deductible but charged such a high premium the training provider couldn’t afford; or
- the training provider pushed the financial risk of a higher deductible to the renter, and with it the associated cost of having to buy a more expensive Non-Owned Policy.
CSA’s deductible is $10,000.
- Non-Owned Policy. The annual premium for this is paid by you, and runs between $230 and $450 per year, depending on your qualifications and the type of aircraft you’re renting. This policy covers the small mistakes whose repairs would not reach the H&L policy’s deductible. It also covers the full deductible for the big mistakes that would be claimed against the aircraft owner’s H&L policy. The Non-Owned policy has no deducible.
As a student and/or renter, you probably want this coverage in case you blow a tire on landing or hit a wingtip on an obstruction during taxi, because the cost of those repairs easily exceeds the annual premium. Thus, many people consider this insurance better than leaving a deposit for the full amount of the deductible. CSA’s broker can provide policies from a number of carriers to cover the H&L deductible, and CSA accepts existing policies from most carriers.
- Aviation General Liability Policy. The premium for this is included in the hourly rental cost of the airplane. This provides two critical pieces of protection:
- For you (injury) and your personal property (damage to your car, theft of your headset, computer, etc.) when on the property of the training provider. This coverage probably doesn’t exist if your training provider doesn’t have an actual physical presence and address on the airport.
- For you and your heirs if there is an accident caused by maintenance to the airplane. Insist on written proof of Products and Completed Operations Liability coverage from your training provider and/or the vendor that provides maintenance on the aircraft. Many free-lance instructors and smaller operations don’t provide this because their maintenance technicians – even if they say they are FAA-licensed A&P technicians – do not have insurance that covers their actual work on the airplane.
CSA provides $2,000,000 of AGL insurance which should add to your confidence in both being on the premises and renting our airplanes.
Bear in mind that insurance is a significant portion of the hourly rental cost of an airplane, if the coverage is adequate and appropriate. A flight training operation can make its hourly rental costs look cheaper than a competitor’s by reducing coverage (and therefore increasing your potential catastrophic liability exposure), and/or by making you buy your own more expensive insurance to cover higher deductibles and coverage gaps.
Maintenance Support: Flight training is hard on airplanes, and the last thing a student needs is an imperfect training tool. The best schools have dedicated Aviation Maintenance Technicians on staff so they don’t have to compete with an outside maintenance vendor’s other customers for priority attention.
It’s not sufficient that a school has access to a contract mechanic. They should be teammates and fellow employees for the students and flight instructors they support. At Cornerstone, our own team of six mechanics covers the flight schedule 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, so that even minor problems can be corrected before each flight. They have no higher priority or allegiance. They know the students personally, and how important an FAA Practical Test flight is for each of them. They have been known to stay all night so that the student has a perfect airplane for their big day.
Aircraft Fleet: For your flight training, you should look for three things in the fleet: the number of aircraft; model continuity; and engine horsepower.
- Fleet Numbers – The training fleet should have several similar aircraft so that there are always back-ups.
- When you organize the rest of your life to make time for a flight lesson, the worst thing is to arrive at the airport and find that the training provider’s only aircraft is unavailable because it broke on the last flight. Actually, that’s not the worst thing. The worst thing is when an unscrupulous operator or flight instructor doesn’t have a spare airplane, and won’t take the broken aircraft out of service because he wants the revenue from your lesson.
- Even minor defects that don’t affect airworthiness compromise training because the student gets distracted working around the inoperative equipment.
- Nothing enhances safety and efficiency like having a spare, identical model of airplane ready to go if the first airplane isn’t up to the task.
- Engine Horsepower – Fleet aircraft should have a minimum of 160 to 180 HP. Gravity never sleeps, and the engine is what keeps us aloft. More power is safer when operating from higher elevations and when crossing mountains.
- Many schools were sold on the use of light aircraft with small engines because the lower fuel consumption saves money. It does! For the school. However, it’s a false economy for the student because it takes so much longer to fly to the practice area or to climb back to altitude to begin the next maneuver or landing. There’s very little training value in all that time spent coaxing an underpowered airplane back to altitude. It’s not even a graded item on check rides! Thus, a student gets fewer repetitions of maneuvers in the same billable time.
- On hot days, some light aircraft can’t be safely flown in the afternoon and early evenings because they have no climb performance. A more powerful airplane not only provides a greater safety margin, but in some cases allows the training continue.
- Model Continuity – The student benefits from using the same make of aircraft for Private Pilot, Instrument Rating, and Commercial Pilot courses. If the school uses an aircraft for initial training that is not certified for follow-on instrument training, the student loses the value of her mastery of that airplane and must start anew. She pays again to learn a new platform before she can begin learning the course content. It’s much safer and more efficient if she can continue to use a familiar platform in which she’s already proficient and immediately start learning the instrument procedures.
Online Reviews: Early in your research, you will probably find online customer reviews for the larger flight schools, and even for some free-lance instructors. However, selecting a flight training provider is a lot more important and complicated than choosing a mobile phone or picking a restaurant for dinner, and the online review systems are poorly designed for that purpose. You need to look beyond the Average Review score, which is likely to be misleading, and evaluate the valuable data in the comments.
Here is some advice on weighing the information:
- Recognize that some schools require reviews from their students and employees. Therefore, the sheer number of reviews doesn’t tell you much about how good, or how successful a training facility might be. Be a bit more skeptical about comments that don’t reveal whether the reviewer was an actual customer.
- Weigh the most recent comments more heavily than those from a few years ago. Most schools hire their own recent graduates, and since those young pilots move up to a better-paying job as quickly as they can, it’s unlikely that instructors who earned a 5-star review 2-3 years ago are still on staff.
- On the other hand, if you see the same instructor’s name mentioned over several years, it’s a good indication that the school has a central cadre of instructors who stick around because they are passionate about flight instruction.
- Look for comments about the leadership, facilities, aircraft, safety culture, and the provider’s overall commitment to a great student experience. Those are the things that endure and reflect on the school’s management. They are more predictive of what your experience might be.
- Disregard reviews that focus on things that won’t affect actual training, or that reflect a single minor event. Most flight schools suffer from the occasional 1-star review from someone who fancies himself an “influencer” but has little expertise in flight training. Schools get flamed because someone showed-up unannounced and wasn’t treated like a rock-star on their first visit. It’s like wandering into Harvard Medical School and deciding that the school is terrible just because the first professor they ran into wasn’t excited to see them. A thousand graduated doctors may have a better, and better-informed, opinion of the place.
- Remember, it takes six 5-star reviews from successful and satisfied graduates, each with a year’s experience with the school, just to offset one 1-star review from someone with a 5-minute experience in order for the school to regain a middle-of-the-road 4.4 average. That’s why the online scoring is a poor tool for evaluating complicated, long-term processes like flight instruction.