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How do I choose a helicopter flight school?

Posted 14 years 95 days ago ago by Admin

By Randy Rowles

Like so many before , you ask “How do I choose the right flight school for me”. Well , that depends on several factors. We will attempt to guide you through the selection process and give a few pointers along the way.

When beginning the selection process , you must first understand the terms used in describing flight schools and their level of certification.

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Like so many before , you ask “How do I choose the right flight school for me”. Well , that depends on several factors. We will attempt to guide you through the selection process and give a few pointers along the way.

When beginning the selection process , you must first understand the terms used in describing flight schools and their level of certification. The most basic level of flight training facility operates under Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) Part 61. The regulation identifies the minimum certification requirements for all pilot and flight instructors. Basically , any Commercial helicopter pilot that acquires a Flight Instructor certificate can operate a FAR Part 61 flight school. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has no direct oversight as to the day-to-day operations of flight schools operating under FAR Part 61.

The method that is used to maintain a standard set forth by the FAA for pilots-in-training is outlined in the Practical Test Standards (PTS). When a pilot-in-training completes a course of instruction , the pilot applicant is presented to a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE) or a direct FAA official for testing by their instructor. The PTS is the minimum standard the pilot-in-training must meet to obtain a pilot certificate.

The FAR Part 141 flight training facility differs from their Part 61 counterpart by the level of FAA participation. All FAR Part 141 schools must undergo a lengthy and very thorough evaluation by the FAA prior to conducting training. They must have in place a management structure that meets the minimum experience requirements as outlined in FAR Part 141. The FAR Part 141 course curriculum has a minimum standard outlined in the appendix section of FAR Part 141 and must obtain FAA approval prior to conducting training. Due to this increased FAA participation , FAR Part 141 training facilities are able to offer the same certification courses as FAR Part 61 facilities , but with reduced minimum requirements. The pilot applicants are held to the same standards as outlined in the appropriate PTS.

Is an FAR Part 141 school better than a Part 61 flight school? The answer is; not always. Flight schools are as unique as fingerprints. Do not let the bold letters on the schools sign out front that say FAA APPROVED sway your decision. Now that you know the basic difference between training facilities , lets talk about the real important stuff.

When you make the decision to become a Professional Pilot , you are also making the decision to spend a small fortune. You are making an investment in your future. You should investigate flight schools thoroughly , ask lots of questions , and make them earn your business. Don’t ever forget that you are the customer. Don’t rush into the selection process. Take your time.

As I tell all new pilots , “Flight training is very similar to building a home. The completed structure is only as good as the foundation it is built upon”.

Lets take a look at a few points when selecting the flight school for you…


Depending on your flight training needs , the location of the flight school may play a large role in the quality of the course. An example of this would be the need for a mountain course. I agree that Florida is a wonderful place to train , but no matter how in depth the course the fact is there are no mountains. Many schools are good at many things. The fact that all schools are not good at all things should be expected. Another example would be Flight Instructor training. The Flight Instructor applicant must demonstrate a ground contact (full-down) autorotation. You would think that all training facilities that offer Flight Instructor courses would be performing this maneuver. That fact is that all are not. A lot of insurance companies now prohibit this type of ground contact maneuver. You ask “How are they able to train CFI applicants”? The best answer I can give you is; ask the training facility that same question.

Another factor would be the general weather conditions where the flight school is located. If you select a training facility in a region that often experiences poor weather conditions such as rain , fog , thunderstorms , and strong winds , your number of flights may be reduced. This would result from a student / instructor base competing for any available flight slot when the weather is flyable. At our training facility in South Florida , it is often said that if the weather is to bad to fly , just wait ten minutes and it will pass. South Florida experiences year round flying weather making it one of the best training environments in the world.


When discussing the aircraft utilized for flight training , three (3) areas of interest should be addressed. They are availability , maintenance , and insurance. The availability of aircraft for you to conduct your training is paramount. A good number of aircraft as a minimum is three (3). This will better allow for scheduled and unscheduled maintenance , a more flexible flight schedule , and a better idea of the maintenance practices of the training facility. This is not to say that a school with a single instructor and aircraft cannot provide quality training , only that in that situation a simple maintenance issue would have the potential of delaying your training schedule. The number of aircraft that a school operates should be based upon the student load of that facility. So , if the school has only one aircraft or ten , the ability of that facility to offer you a comprehensive schedule to fit your needs as the customer is paramount. At no time should the quality of the training be compromised for the quantity of customers. This leads us to the next point of interest.

Maintenance of an aircraft must be performed. There are maintenance procedures outlined in the FARs that must be performed at given intervals. These maintenance procedures must be logged and endorsed by the appropriate maintenance personnel. You the student , soon to be the Pilot In Command of those same aircraft should become familiar with the aircraft that you fly. You will soon become responsible for determining whether an aircraft is in Airworthy condition , or not! Do not think that a dirty aircraft is not well maintained. The fact that a flight schedule keeps the blades turning often over shadows the cleanliness of the aircraft. Most aircraft in a flight school are washed once , maybe twice per week. Keeping the aircraft clean is often the flight instructors responsibility. The fact is a student pilot and their instructor will wash an aircraft together at some point during the course of training. This is due to the fact that an aircraft can be damaged if washed incorrectly and the proper procedures must be learned. As a long time flight instructor I can tell you that several students have offered to wash aircraft between flights to help out , be a part of the team. This effort on the part of the student is often welcomed and appreciated , but always ask permission before hand!

The final point I want to address is insurance. Flight training facilities insure their aircraft in several ways. Hull insurance is the protection for the owner / operator with regard to the value of the aircraft. At times , and owner / operator will not carry hull insurance and accept the risk involved. There is also Liability insurance and they will all have this one. This protects the owner / operator from direct or indirect liability in the event of a claim. Often , the student or renter pilot gets a copy of this policy and automatically assumes they are personally covered by this policy. That is not always correct. The student or renter pilot is not covered by the aircraft operator policy for personal liability. In addition , they would also be responsible for the deductible in the event of a claim while they are operating the aircraft. The deductible is often 10% of the insured value , so lets see , 10% of $160 , 000 is , WOW!!! That’s a lot of money for a simple afternoon flight with a friend. There are supplemental insurance policies or agreement procedures that address these issues. Your best defense , ask the questions and get it in writing. Protect yourself!


The financing for flight training can often be more difficult than the training itself. The options range from a second mortgage on property , a credit card , or finally selling that last remaining bottle of ELVIS cologne that your Dad said would be worth a bunch someday. Whatever method you choose for financing , be careful with your money. Think of your flight training as an investment , not just the cost of flying. The average cost to obtain the certification and flight time to be competitive as an entry-level helicopter pilot is $47 , 000.00 USD.

Often a flight school will offer great reductions if you pay for the course of training up front. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do that , but before I give anybody my money I’m going to do a lot of research on that company. The helicopter industry is very , very small. If there are bad apples , you will find out about them. You also have conventional methods of protecting yourself such as the Better Business Bureau , court records , etc. If they go out of business , your money will probably be gone as well.

Career Education Loans , VA funding and the GI Bill , and many other types of funding options require the training facility to meet FAR Part 141 minimums. There are times when a training facility meeting FAR Part 141 minimums are not eligible to accept certain types of funding due to their time in business , low number of overall students , etc. Make sure you ask the training facility what type of funding they are approved to accept. Some financing options that our students have utilized are Sallie Mae , Pilotfinance.com , and AOPA loan programs.


The experience of the flight training facility should also be evaluated. As we mentioned earlier , any Commercial Pilot can obtain a Flight Instructor certificate and become a training facility. In contrast , there are working industry professionals with years of experience in the helicopter field that return to the helicopter training market. Due to the minimal profit margin in the flight training field , instructor pilot salaries are lower than in most other helicopter missions. This is why you often find lower time helicopter pilots as the front line instructors in the industry.

I cannot speak for all flight schools , but when designing our mission statement at our facility , we stated “Training for Professional Helicopter Pilots , by Professional Helicopter Pilots”. I myself have been in the helicopter business since the late eighties and returned to the flight training field because it is my passion. So I have developed courses and instructional techniques taken from years of attending professional training facilities such as Bell Helicopter , FlightSafety International , etc. Once these courses have been developed , I teach my instructor staff the techniques and procedures that took 16 years of flying to develop. They in turn pass that experience and knowledge on to the new , entry-level pilot. We also require our instructors to attend a recurrent ground and flight procedures program every 90 days to keep them sharp and in tune with their position requirements.

So the experience of the flight instructor should be placed more on the facility than solely on the instructor. A well standardized training facility will put out the same information no matter what the instructors experience and background. Some flight operations require the instructor to be at the top of their game. Examples would be ground contact maneuvers , external load training , NVG , etc. Again , the training facility is responsible for assigning instructors to train within their abilities and proficiency. A training facility with a well experienced management staff will insure that the proficiency and ability of the instructors meet the training needs at hand.


Often , the last thing mentioned is the one best remembered , so I saved this for last. The first impression you get of a flight school is often the right one. A Customer Service oriented staff is essential in the flight instruction industry. Often people that are training are miles and miles from their homes. Something as simple as mailing a letter , seeing a doctor , finding a pharmacy , or even a safe hotel can be hardships to say the least. A professional and courteous Customer Service staff is paramount. This care and consideration for you , the customer gives you the mindset and comfort of knowing that all of your needs , personal and professional are being addressed.

At our facility , the Customer Service staff takes care of everything from the hotel & airline reservations , rental cars , directions , or any need of the client before , during , and after their stay. Demand good customer service at all times. You are the customer , so make them earn your money.

In closing , I would like you to know that often I’m asked if I would choose a career in helicopters if I had it to do all over again , I would most definitely say “yes”. My father always said “Randy , when you do what you love for a living you will never work a day in your life”. Whether for personal pleasure or a career change , being a helicopter pilot allows you to share your passion of flying with others. Live your dream!

About the author:

Randy Rowles is the founder of Palm Beach Helicopters Flight Training Academy in Palm Beach , Florida . Randy holds an ATP/CFII and has over 10,000 hours of helicopter flight time. He has flown fourteen different types of helicopters including the B407 , S55 , S62 , S76 , B430 , R22/44 to name a few. Randy has been fortunate to have had experience in most every position from Designated Pilot Examiner , Chief Pilot , and Check Airman to name a few. He has flown a wide variety of missions to include external load , S76 CFI at Flight Safety International , ENG , Corporate , Charter and Instructor Pilot at Bell Helicopter Training Academy.