There are so many schools out there that it quickly becomes overwhelming when you start looking. With so many options, how do we choose the right one? Perhaps it is simply a matter of finding a school in your area as the need to stay close to family or work will be the deciding factor. Otherwise things like perceived expense, weather at the school’s location, their reputation or size will most likely guide you in your choice. In this blog I will talk about my decision making process for finding a school and how I ended up choosing Mauna Loa.
In the fixed-wing world options run from employing an independent instructor at your local airport all the way through to enrolling in a university aviation degree program. Then there are the numerous training schools and flight academies that fall between these extremes. With helicopters there are very few, if any, independents out there, but you can still go the university route. University of North Dakota and Embry Riddle have some of the best recognized four-year degree programs. A degree is also possible with smaller flight schools. Many offer to incorporate a two-year degree program with a local community college into the flight training. This can be beneficial because it is sometimes easier to secure funding when earning a degree.
I was not limited by location nor did I want to go with the “lowest bidder.” I also knew that because of my age I wanted to get into the industry as quickly as possible. That helped rule out degree programs. Even after making these initial decisions I realized I would have to be more specific to wade through the vast number of schools I found. In the end there were four main factors I looked at to rule out as many schools as possible:
•Number of years in operation
•Size of the school
•Local weather and terrain
•Which machines they operate
Let’s take a look at each of these criteria in a little more detail.
The first two can be combined together. I wanted to go to a school that was well known, had been around for at least ten years, and was big enough that I would have a good chance of being hired to instruct at the end of my training. And of course the busier the school the faster I could build hours while instructing. My personal preference when it comes to the number of students would have been to stay small, but as I stated above I believe that considering your options when you start instructing is very important. Because of this I tried to strike a balance in size. Another concern with small schools is their vulnerability to market changes. Pilots I talked to told me to be wary of small schools since they can sometimes disappear overnight. Having to switch schools halfway through a certificate would suck up a lot of time and waste considerable money. This is a risk best avoided.
Local weather is obviously an important consideration. It doesn’t really matter if you are planning on flying once a week or every day you can, nobody wants to miss an opportunity because of bad weather. Some schools will argue that you need to get experience in variable weather conditions and I believe there is some merit to this. The thing to avoid is weather so consistently poor that you cannot fly for days at a time. These delays can be compounded at big schools where there are many students competing for machines. When it comes to terrain, the more variety the better! Many helicopter jobs involve flying in mountainous or off-airport locations or over the ocean, so I believe the sooner you get experience with these the better.
My final consideration was the types of helicopters the school operates. There is no question that the Robinson R22 is the standard training helicopter. Not everyone agrees that it is the best, but it is by far the most common. The Schweizer 300 is the other helicopter that you are likely to see as a trainer. Many believe that it is a superior helicopter and if all else were equal I would have chosen to train in it. But in the end I went with what I believe will help me the most in the instructing role. And that means that going to a school that does not train in the Robinson is too big a risk. An instructor with no experience flying Robinsons will face a much smaller job market if she is not hired at the school where she gets her training. Compounding this is the fact that most of the schools operating Schweizers are smaller, so even if you are hired you may face a longer road to the industry. Getting experience with the R22 after completing your certificates is always a possibility; just make sure you’ve budgeted for it.
Beyond these core considerations there were a couple of other pieces of advice I received along the way. Never forget that you are the boss. You hired your flight instructor; if he or she is not performing to your expectations do not hesitate to let them know. Any good school will allow you to switch instructors if you are not happy with your assignment. In fact many will have students work with multiple instructors in order to expose them to different teaching styles. Do not to enroll with a school that requires lump sum payments. You will be allowed to pay as you go at any reputable school. And speaking of cost, while many schools try to estimate the total cost of a professional pilot program it is often more accurate to compare the hourly operating cost of machines.
As with everything else in life when the cost seems unbelievably low there is always a reason. Some schools run old machines, some provide as much training as possible in fixed-wing, some only quote the cost of the FAA’s minimum hours required. Be wary if you are using money as your main deciding factor. Be honest with yourself, can you really afford the training? Lastly, make lots of phone calls to schools and ask lots of questions. Better yet visit them in person if you can.
In the end I chose Mauna Loa not only because it fit my criteria but also because it came as a recommendation. I was also drawn to the school because of their honest approach to helping prospective students evaluate their ability to complete the program. While many schools hype up the “cool factor” of flying helicopters, assure you that the job market is amazing, and want you to think that financing is easy, Mauna Loa asks potential students to think seriously about what they are getting into and why. I think they offer the most realistic advice concerning cost, the amount of time needed, and the ultimate path to the industry. Mauna Loa’s integrity and honesty were the final factors in my decision.