The UK or USA for flight training?
For those wanting to fly, there is one common question appearing time and time again on internet forums, and that is “where should I learn to fly?” And it seems that a lot of these people asking the question have only one thing in mind – money. The financial side of flight training is rightly an important factor when choosing a flight school, but other factors are often ignored, and some students might soon regret choosing the schools that they did.
Don’t get me wrong. Just like my fellow students, I had an excellent time at both Orlando Flight Training in Florida and at Bristol Aviation back in England. And with Florida especially, what is there not to like? The prices are attractive, year-round sunshine is almost guaranteed and there are no shortage of things to do when not learning to fly or building hours, but should ‘wannabe’ pilots in the UK stick to learning on home soil? I reckon so.
When I was looking for a flight school, I had never flown in a light aircraft before, but I knew that a career in the skies was for me, and I managed to convince my parents to help me with the funding of a lengthy flight training programme. After some research and a few days of travelling, identifying possible schools, I settled on Orlando Flight Training and their JAA Pro Pilot programme. With the exception of a JAA instrument rating, this course gives students just about everything they need to be issued with a Frozen ATPL.
The first step on this long journey was the FAA Private Pilot Licence (PPL). If you are not familiar with the various licences out there, an FAA licence is not valid in Europe unless flying an N-registered aircraft – one from America. This might seem like a useless qualification to have, but really it wasn’t, and I will explain why a little later. I flew for several weeks – sometimes solo – and covered the basics of flying and was also introduced to instrument flying, which would come in useful later on. After just one written exam, I was signed off for the practical test. That was probably the most nerve-racking day for me. It was my first ever flight test and I had no idea what to expect, so I spent the few hours leading up to the test shaking away nervously! The flying was preceded by a question and answer session with the examiner. He would ask me questions about anything and everything to do with flying; technical questions about the aircraft, emergency procedures, airspace and a even a flight I had been asked to plan. This section of the test lasted around 15 minutes, but, depending on who the examiner was, it could take anything up to an hour! The flight itself was around 90 minutes and involved demonstrating take-offs, landings, manoevures, stalls and more. Fortunately for me, it was a first time pass.
So, the FAA PPL was fairly straightforward and for somebody like me – not wanting to stop at just a PPL – it made sense to train the easier (in comparison to JAA) FAA way. Multiple exams must be taken to be issued with a JAA PPL and it is my understanding that the syllabus also differs slightly. Because I was to receive JAA training months later, this wasn’t a problem for me.
The next step on the programme was the JAA ATPL ground school, which was to last six months! It was quite a shock to go from non-stop flying to hours on end in a classroom. Monday to Friday, 8.30am to 5.00pm, we would sit and absorb – or try to anyway – the masses of information about law, meteorology, principles of flight and more, before going home and studying from manuals and question banks! Not only did we have to prepare for the fourteen exams, but also bi-weekly progress tests, so there was a lot of pressure. Failure to pass a class test meant that you wouldn’t be allowed to sit the real exam.
Many schools offering ATPL training will give students the option to study alone at home – distance learning – which is good for those who might have other commitments, but probably not wise for those who are going to need lots of help through the tricky course! Distance learning is much cheaper, but without somebody looking over your shoulder and constantly monitoring your progress, you might be tempted to become lazy and to stop studying. The advantage of the classroom environment is that you have knowledgeable instructors and other students to help you out. Orlando Flight Training offered both the distant learning course and an on-site ground school, which their Pro Pilot course included.
Following the ATPL ground school, it was back to the aircraft again, working towards the FAA Instrument Rating – commonly referred to as the ‘IR’. Instrument flying is flying with reference to only the instruments and looking outside is not allowed. Blocking your view of what is going on outside the aircraft simulates bad visibility and cloud and it forces you to look at the dials in front of you to know the attitude of the aircraft, it’s speed and it’s position. JAA Instrument Ratings are not possible in America, but by having the FAA qualification, a conversion is possible back at home in as little as 15 hours. In my opinion, the JAA instrument rating is much tougher than the FAA one. On the FAA rating, there is very little focus on navigation and more focus on holds (using VORs and the GPS) and approaches (using VORs, GPS and the ILS). In fact, the short test requires you only to demonstrate one hold and three approaches, as well as some general handling. Compare that to the JAA rating, where students must plan and file a flight plan, fly the route, fly an approach, go around, deal with an emergency, run through general handling, perform an asymmetric approach, go around and then perform a visual landing after one lap of the circuit. And with JAA still using NDBs for both holds and approaches, it can get pretty tough! The huge differences between the FAA and JAA IR make the conversion feel more like a full course!
The final part of the flight training in Florida was the JAA Commercial Pilot Licence (CPL). As explained earlier, this licence superseded my FAA PPL, which explains the logic behind not making Pro Pilot students go through intense JAA PPL training. Flying now in a complex Piper PA28 Arrow – with it’s retractable gear – this was quite a relaxed and enjoyable way of flying. All of the flying was carried out in VFR (visual flight rules) and involved flying to remote grass strips and identifying them, before diverting to another strip, which was equally as impossible to see from the air. As a commercial pilot, the test is simulating you carrying a fare-paying passenger, so you are expected to treat the examiner as a passenger and to explain everything you would expect to hear if flying with an airline; safety at the airport and on board, lifejackets (if required), operation and location of exit doors and more. Keen to provide a good service, I even served refreshments – a Kit Kat and a can of Coke! After completing the diversion, some general handling and instrument flying is necessary, but that is nothing too challenging.
Despite leaving Florida with my JAA CPL, I didn’t have the first clue about flying in the UK and Europe, where my new licence would allow me to jump into an aircraft and fly. Airspace was different and so were the radios and even a flight with an instructor was a daunting thought. Unfortunately, European students learning the American way don’t think about this. With only money on the mind, they seem to forget that the cost of adapting to the European ways of flying will probably result in them spending whatever money has been saved (and possibly more) on extra flights.
My multi-engine rating (MEP) and my instrument rating conversion (FAA to JAA) were both taken care of by Bristol Aviation, and what a great school that was. One week of VFR flying in the twin-engined Piper Seneca was followed by several hours in the simulator and then more time flying IFR (instrument flight rules) in the aircraft. I thought back then – and still believe now – that the JAA Instrument Rating was the toughest training to date, and I know of plenty of others who would agree with me. To get through it, you need a a good school and a great instructor. Even with an FAA Instrument Rating, you might at times feel like you’re completely new to instrument flying!
For British trainee pilots, ask yourself what an ideal flying school would offer, and don’t be too tempted to think only about money. The many advertisements you will see each month in pilot magazines might seem attractive, but bear in mind that these unbelievable prices are based on you completing your training in minimum hours. A handful of students might finish in the fewest number of hours possible, but most won’t, and every extra hour will have to be paid for. Also ask yourself where you will do most of your flying when you have a licence? Presumably, if training for a JAA PPL, you will spend many hours in the skies above the UK and Europe, so what is the benefit of learning overseas? You will need as much exposure as possible to European airspace, but by learning overseas, you are missing out and you could be learning one or two bad practices as well. As mentioned earlier, the radios can be a problem when transitioning from the USA to the UK. The informal chit-chat that is tolerated across the pond would not be tolerated here. It might be hard to break such bad habits!
Look closely at the people teaching you and ask if they are the right instructors for you. Often enough, they won’t be. I flew 12 hours with one instructor at Orlando Flight Training and he was nothing but a waste of space. He was only flight training to earn a half-decent salary and to fill his own log book with time. Flights were silent and pre and post-flight briefings never happened. This man had no interest in helping me to achieve my dream. Fortunately, this particular instructor left the school in 2009 but worryingly went on to become a chief pilot at another flying school! If the top dog isn’t great, what are the people beneath him going to be like? Flying in Bristol, I was surrounded by older instructors, all of whom were passionate about flying and willing to spend the rest of their flying days teaching new pilots how to fly.
Give flight training some serious thought, and again, don’t get too bogged down thinking about money! It’s by no means cheap, but choosing cheaper schools could cost you more in the long run.
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