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Finding a Flight School

By Helen Woods

Helen Woods

Locating a flight school for sport pilot training can be a frustrating matter. As with many successful new ventures, demand has greatly outpaced the industry’s ability to provide training in most localities. However, we have good news: There are growing options and an increase in the number of schools offering training.

A good place to start your search is your local airport. Many people aren’t aware of the small airports in their vicinity. Websites like www.RunwayFinder.com and www.AirNav.com can help. Among the information you’ll discover at both sites, RunwayFinder will show you a map of all airports in your area, and AirNav will provide the phone numbers of the airports. Be aware that, while free to users, AirNav charges flight schools for listings, so pages about a particular airport may not reflect all of the flight schools at the field. A phone call to the airport manager may be in order to find that information on flight schools.

EAA’s Sport Pilot website, www.SportPilot.org, is another great place to locate sport pilot schools. A search under “find an instructor” will likely yield a number of contacts. When you make contact to inquire about training, be sure to ask the instructor if he has an aircraft available and if his schedule matches yours.

Another option is to purchase a plane and lease it back to a local flight school. While flight instructors are relatively easy to find, a school with a light-sport airplane (LSA) can be difficult to locate. Financing for LSAs is available, and if you get connected with the right school, leasing back a plane can be profitable. If you plan to purchase a plane, seek advice from an experienced pilot who is an aircraft owner and preferably a flight instructor. Such a person can help you learn what to look for in a plane.

If you’re willing to travel, a number of sport pilot schools offer intensive training packages. These packages have pros and cons. The upside is that flying steadily allows a student to progress quickly as he retains more from lesson to lesson. It also means a reduction in the total time and cost of earning a pilot certificate. The downside is that many of these programs list prices and time spans that are unrealistic. Also, some of the “cram courses” offered may be less robust than desired, training the applicant more for a test than for the real world of flying. If you’re considering an intensive training course, do your homework. Request contact information of graduates, and interview them to find out how they liked the course as well as the amount of time and money it actually required.

Finally, if the medical certificate isn’t an issue for you, don’t rule out the possibility of obtaining a private pilot certificate. In many localities, sport pilot training isn’t available, but private pilot training is. The cost and time differences may be negligible between sport and private certificates if the sport choice involves a lengthy commute or staying at a hotel while training. Earning a private pilot certificate at a local school would also mean you could rent that school’s plane after training. In contrast, traveling to a school far away for intensive training could mean having to buy a plane in order to use your certificate when you get home.

Once you find a potential school, there will be a number of questions you should ask:

What type of plane do they have?
Some planes are easier to learn with than others. More importantly, some planes are easier to fit in than others. It’s a good idea to do some research on the plane by speaking to other pilots (who have logged time in the type) as well as sitting in it. Do you fit in it comfortably? Can you see out of the windows? Is it designed for primary training?

What is the useful load of the plane?
The useful load is the total weight of people, bags, and fuel that can safely and legally be loaded into the airplane. Don’t let others try to convince you that more weight can be placed in the plane than the manufacturer specifies. Not only is this not legal but it also gives the insurance companies grounds to deny a claim if there should there be an accident. It also means that you will likely not be able to take the final test, as no examiner will fly in a plane that is overloaded.

How many of that model of plane do they have?
Attending school with more than one of the same model of plane will minimize interruptions in your training if the plane should need maintenance or repair.

Tecnam Eaglet
Tecnam Echo Super trainer

How much time does the school’s plane spend in maintenance?
Many light-sport planes require special parts from overseas and mechanics with special training. If the school doesn’t have a good mechanic on staff or easy access to parts, your lessons could be severely interrupted by maintenance. Does the school have a syllabus with a system of record keeping and internal quality checks? A good school has all of these to make sure that students are spending their time and money efficiently.

What are the credentials of the instructors?
In the flight training world, many instructors have very little flight experience. What experience they have is often in aircraft very different from LSAs, and the knowledge they possess may not cover light-sport training. It’s important to find an instructor who has experience training students in light-sport aircraft, as the regulations and flight characteristics are different from standard-weight aircraft. Ask the instructor what a “set” or VH is, and if he gives you a blank look, you’ll know he doesn’t have light-sport teaching knowledge.

Light-sport flight instructors also come in two flavors: subpart H and subpart K. It’s important to know which one yours is if you plan to move on to a private pilot certificate someday. There are excellent instructors in both of these categories, but under the current rules, training given by subpart K instructors doesn’t count toward higher ratings while that given by subpart H instructors does. EAA and others are trying to get this rule changed, but as it is now, you need to check your instructor’s credentials carefully if you may think you’ll move on to a private pilot rating. A subpart H instructor will have a commercial pilot certificate and instrument rating. If your instructor doesn’t have either of these, he’s subpart K.

Helen Woods earned the Master Flight Instructor recognition from the National Association of Flight Instructors. She’s also Chief Flight Instructor and Manager at Chesapeake Sport Pilot, located in Stevensville, Maryland.

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