School Wars: A New Beginning
We recently detailed in another article the closure of the flying school that had served as the unofficial ‘home’ for Aero Circus for the past few years. Since the inevitability of that event became apparent, we have been seeking alternatives that would allow Aero Circus to continue along the same path it has traversed since it began, preferably with minimal interruption to what we are doing.
In this article we look at how a simple task can sometimes become an epic adventure.
You might think, as we did, that finding a new home for Aero Circus would be a fairly straightforward task. One that could be quickly and easily settled in an afternoon, followed by some celebratory beers. However, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Apparently, there are two types of flying schools: One type that adequately meets most of your needs and the other type that doesn’t. Our journey towards finding the first type is probably quite similar to that of the student pilot. Except that with well over half a century of collective experience, the Aero Circus team should not find it a daunting process.
Perhaps the reverse turned out to be true because all that experience directed us to be a whole lot more critical than the average ‘green’ student pilot. Or perhaps our list of ‘must haves’ was somewhat larger than that of the newbie – who generally only wants the best possible training for the lowest possible price. At the beginning they mostly don’t understand the long-term impacts that the majority of a flying school’s philosophies, style and resources will have on their training, and ultimately on their aviation career. Or safety and skill levels if they are only doing it for fun.
Why does Aero Circus need a Flying School?
There are 2 primary reasons why Aero Circus needs to be affiliated with a flying school.
The first is that we need somewhere to rent aircraft for our regular adventures, as well as continuing our training, either towards the next licence level or simply to become better pilots.
Of course, one alternative would be to own (or invest in a share of) an aircraft. Aside from the obvious financial problems associated with that, we need access to a good range of aircraft to meet different needs for different missions and skill levels.
Secondly, to keep his finger on the pulse of aviation training, our resident part-time flight instructor needs to work under a part 141 or 142 AOC operator. He does not have the time (or the desire to not have a life outside work) required to start his own flying school.
The need to continue to be able to provide training to new pilots also extends to those ‘clowns’ who are either still working towards a higher licence level or wanting to improve their skills within their present licence level. We believe that a biennial flight review is not sufficient ongoing training for most non-professional pilots to maintain their skills, much less improve them.
In itself, this proved to generate some difficulties. As with the noble pursuit of skinning cats, there are many different ways to train pilots. Most of these are still based on WW2 thinking, but that’s not really a problem when the training aircraft on offer are from much the same period. Anyway, until CASA moves on from that era, the syllabus requirements are unlikely to change, so any progressive-thinking school will likely not get too far, at least as far as ab initio and subsequent training is concerned.
Along with these two requirements, Aero Circus also needs the support of the school, or at least for them not to be obstructive. We do not compete with flying schools. We aim to enhance the products that they already produce. However, some schools may not fully understand our position in the grand scheme.
Every flying school has its own philosophies when it comes to teaching new students. While no two would be exactly the same in every way, there are a number of ‘thought streams’ that can segregate schools into family groups. While there is a variety of these (and the details are well beyond the scope of this article), a simple example might be the differences between three common types of flying school.
Industrialised – Go to uni to learn the theory in a structured (read: Battery hen) environment then move along the assembly line to a flight school for the practical stuff. Then of course after 150 hours flying time, it’s straight into the left-hand seat of a large commercial jet earning megabucks (if you believe the marketing). Let the government pay for it all and pretend it’s all free (until reality hits in a few years’ time).
Traditional – Get a job (or two), save some money, establish a decent cash flow (or adopt rich parents) THEN start to learn to fly. Self-study along the way with help from your instructor and peers. Once you have your CPL and at least 200 hours in the logbook, find you first job in General Aviation and spend a few years REALLY learning how to fly. Then if you still have a burning desire to press buttons, drink coffee and fly the same routes every day, you can head for the airlines.
Blended – A recent development takes the Traditional model but uses ultralight aircraft in the early stages of training to save considerable amounts of money for the student. This approach has its drawbacks but is growing in popularity and may well become the industry standard in the not-too-distant future.
Different schools may also have different ideas when it comes to whether they are aiming to train safe and competent pilots, or just pilots who meet the CASA requirements. Brand new students, dazzled by the pretty brochures and slick sales talk, would be unlikely to know any of these issues even exist, much less understand how the system works and the impact it will have on their careers. In most cases the student pilot does not find out whether their flying school (and instructor) cuts the mustard until they try to land their first job. That is the time that they may discover that a large percentage of pilots who have graduated from the CASA syllabus are not fit for purpose.
Let’s not kid ourselves. Our previous home was a long way from perfect. Like most schools, it managed to turn out pilots who were not safe (at the lower licence levels) and not employable at the commercial level. They were CASA approved and that’s all that matters (to some). But it did produce a lot of students (and instructors) who went on to achieve great things in aviation. Anecdotally, a lot more than many of the high-profile schools. Further, the school’s reputation within the industry for producing great pilots is probably second to none.
Since Aero Circus is about filling that skills gap between a CASA approved pilot and safe / competent / employable pilot, the success rate of a school’s alumni was not a primary factor in our decision-making. On the other hand, we were not looking for a school with a reputation for consistently producing rubbish, either. While our shopping list had a few ‘must haves’ and some ‘nice to haves’, there were a couple of things that we had not even considered, that may well turn out to be fortuitous in the long term.
Wheat and Chaff
From start to finish, our search for a new flying school took about one year. Our desire was to remain at our traditional airport (Archerfield) but we did look well beyond the perimeter security fence for alternatives. From the Sunshine Coast to the Gold Coast we looked high and low. Here are some of the things we learned along the way:
- Schools with the prettiest brochures or the fanciest premises do not necessarily produce the best graduate students. Schools that look great on paper (or web page) may not measure up in real life.
- The fine print often hides a multitude of unpleasant conditions that you may not be comfortable with, such as a long list of non-standard extras that you may be charged after hiring an aircraft.
- Bigger is not always better, as in some other areas of life (allegedly).
- Some schools are focussed on a niche market that may not suit your circumstances.
- Some schools are focussed purely on the revenue side of the ledger and are not interested in the quality of the products that they produce.
- Many schools are inflexible in their approach to training, with a one size fits all philosophy.
- Price is not a reliable guide to likely outcomes for the student (in fact the opposite is probably true more often than not).
During our quest, some schools eliminated themselves simply by not having the courtesy to even acknowledge resumes that were sent in response to job advertisements. Others failed the cut just because of their poor industry reputation. Some were able to offer excellent printed information and verbal advice when we visited, while others didn’t have a brochure or rate card available and the ‘receptionist du jour’ didn’t know much about the operation.
A good school may not necessarily have red-hot marketing skills, but some basic manners, a variety of aircraft and good teaching skills is always nice.
And the Winner is…
As it turned out, there was no single flying school that met all our requirements.
Unlike the ab initio student, we do have the luxury of spreading ourselves around. Instructor Fabrice has found a school that offers similar employment conditions and teaching philosophies to what he is used to. As they utilise both GA and RA-Aus aircraft for early stage training, he will be able to expand his repertoire into the ultralight world with newer aircraft with fancier equipment. In turn, this will also allow Aero Circus to better understand the RA-Aus universe as internal participants, rather than as mere external observers. As an added bonus, some of their aircraft were even built this century. Happy days!
However, that school does not have an extensive GA fleet for the rest of us to play with. Hence, we are also availing ourselves of the fleet of another nearby school. We do need to keep in mind that there are limitations about logged flying time that counts towards a licence level when switching between schools.
In addition, our investigations have led to the discovery of a number of other ‘like-minded’ schools in the greater South-East Queensland area. We are looking forward to developing relationships with these schools and sharing their individual expertise with our readers in the future.
Lessons for the Student Pilot
If a team with well over 50 years combined flying experience cannot easily find a compatible flying school, a student pilot with zero or limited experience might be in for a hard time. Sometimes they may not find out the truth until after training commences. We would suggest that paying up-front lump sums for training be avoided at all costs so that moving schools (if it comes to that) is not a major problem. If the course has one, the Census Date (the last day you can withdraw from the course without incurring fees) is something that should be fully understood and kept in mind as it approaches. The time leading up to that date offers the best chance to evaluate the suitability of the course.
To some extent, a flying school is only as good as the instructors working in it. If a student’s evaluation criteria are limited to the price of the aircraft rentals or briefings, they might be missing out on training with people who may have a profound impact on their life. Depending on the experience level, new students may be best served by talking to graduates of the school rather than relying exclusively on their own research.
Some instructors have accumulated an impressive level of expertise which is important when they need to explain a difficult subject. Or maybe they have more skills when a student needs to be kept motivated and accountable. Be wary of a flying school where all the instructors have recently graduated from that school. As in human genetics, continuous inbreeding can lead to undesirable consequences.
Students should not be afraid to ask to change instructors if they do not gel with a particular one. Sometimes there is a personality clash which will never be resolved. At other times the instructor may just not be up to scratch. Some schools will not allow switching instructors after the commencement of training, and we think that these schools are best avoided.
One Last Thing
When the aviation training boom kicked off in the 1970’s, the social aspects at the end of each day were an important part of the total experience. This seems to have been largely lost by the GA training community. Nowadays it seems that students turn up for their lesson, then disappear as soon as it is over. Social gatherings, although slowly starting to make a resurgence, are the exception rather than the rule.
Over in the RA-Aus corner however, it appears (to an outsider at least) that the social aspect is much more prevalent. At any fly-in, the majority of aircraft will usually be identified by numbers not letters, and the pilots and their passengers all seem to know each other. In contrast, GA pilots seem to be isolated by flying school, and even within each school there is often minimal interaction outside of the classroom.
Perhaps we can all aim to do something towards encouraging a more social atmosphere within our schools and even the wider industry. We could arrange end-of-day drinks or the occasional BBQ at the school, or a totally unrelated after-hours event (like maybe going to see a movie about airplanes). We can all try harder to build a more social community (in the real world rather than just online) that people enjoy being a part of.
If you are organising an event and there will be free beer, just let us know and Aero Circus will be there. Unless of course we are already busy having drinks at the flying school after a long day of crash-and-goes.