Thursday, January 5, 2012

Choosing the Right Flight School for You

Newer vs Older Airplanes
While many flight schools still operate aircraft from the 1970’s with steam gauge instrumentation (traditional instrumentation) more and more of the larger flight academies are operating glass cockpit aircraft. Which one is right for you is primarily a matter of your personal taste and budget. In determining which is right for you, here are a few things to consider.

A nice paint job does not make an airplane fly.
While a car from the 70’s still used today as daily driver could be considered an old, and barely road worthy, the same cannot be interpolated as being true for airplanes. The reason for this is that every aircraft in the United States has to go through a strict yearly inspection known as the Annual Inspection. Without this inspection, the airplane cannot legally fly. Likewise, if the airplane fails the inspection it cannot fly until all the issues have been corrected. In addition to this, companies that operate airplanes for hire are required have inspections performed every 100 hours of flight time. As such a new airplane is deemed equally airworthy as an airplane from the 70’s.

The tools needed to learn how to pilot an airplane remains the same regardless of vintage.
Sure the faded interior and original 1970’s paint job may be less than impressive compared to the new airplane smell, leather seats and the whiz-bang technology. But these differences do not a pilot make. The same principles of flight still adhere to all airplanes and basic airmanship does not simply rely on the technology in the cockpit.

While the newer glass cockpits may provide higher potential situational awareness, it can also lead to a loss of situational awareness if the technology is used as a crutch to compensate for inadequate knowledge or instruction. Keep in mind that with increased technology there may also be an increased learning curve associated with operation of the technology.

As a flight instructor, I prefer to teach my students on the traditional round dial instruments. Part of my reasoning is that; I believe (especially for instrument students)that using the information from the traditional flight instruments to create a mental map of what’s happening in the flight environment develops better situational awareness. The lack of a giant moving map that’s telling the students what to do, force the students to thinks more for themselves.
Another part of my reasoning is this; Learning how to fly using traditional instrumentation you’ll have access to more rental airplanes as most airplanes have traditional instruments (the average age of the general aviation fleet is 40 years).
You can always transition into a glass cockpit later if you like since transitioning into a glass cockpit environment from a standard instrument cockpit environment is generally easier and faster than vice versa.

If you are looking for economy, renting a technologically advanced airplane will likely cost you more per flight hour. The price of an older C-172 may cost about $100/hr. while a newer model of that same aircraft may easily be close to $180-$200/hr. Over the span of the Private Pilot Course (based on FAA minimum flight times) using an older aircraft for flight training can save you $4000!

Although the newer technology is fun to play with, the paintjob of a new airplane will be more impressive as you are taxiing onto the ramp, and the use of an autopilot on a long flight is a nice treat. It will not create a better pilot during initial flight training. For training purposes, it really doesn’t matter whether you fly a glass cockpit or an airplane with traditional instruments.