Choosing a flying school for your PPL(H) training can be something of a trip into the unknown. As a potential student, it is worth taking some time to get to know how various schools operate before deciding where to train. Different people feel comfortable with varying degrees of formality and not everyone will want the same from a flying school. This page outlines some of the points to consider when selecting a helicopter training organisation to get the best out of your spend.
What you should expect.
The PPL (H) syllabus is specified by EASA and is designed to allow you to consolidate on previous lessons as you progress. It consists of 31 individually numbered exercises. The syllabus should be delivered largely in the specified order, although your instructor may vary this to suit the weather. For each one hour flight, you should expect to be at the airfield for at least two hours. For each exercise you should expect a full classroom briefing lasting between 30 and 60 minutes to be included in the price. Each lesson has a stated aim which your instructor should explain along with the aerodynamic principles and how to fly each manoeuvre. Lessons should not encompass several of the numbered exercises in one flight as this leads to confusion and omission.
After each flight your instructor should provide feedback on what you did well and where you struggled. Most important is that your instructor can identify the cause of any problems you encountered and suggest ways to overcome them. A student record must be maintained recording the content of the debriefing and highlighting any elements of the syllabus that were not completed.
If an instructor is unwilling to spend adequate time briefing and debriefing, it is unlikely that you will get best value out of your flying time. The cost of these briefings should be included in the quoted hourly rate.
There is no getting away from the fact that flying helicopters is expensive. No matter what a school promises, learning to fly is a serious financial commitment and it cannot be done on the cheap. You generally get what you pay for and cheapest is rarely best. Make sure you understand the full costs of a lesson and watch out for hidden extras.
- Hourly rates – Flying Schools typically charge an hourly training rate for each helicopter type (including fuel); most commonly this relates to engine running time – engine start to engine stop. Often this is based upon Datcon or Hobbs meter reading which is automatically recorded by the helicopter. Most schools will quote this rate net of VAT, since some business people can claim VAT back.
- Fuel – Sometimes schools will levy a fuel surcharge which may be added on to the basic rate in times of high fuel prices.
- Landing Fees – Generally you can expect to pay a landing fee for each flight or “sortie”. This is usually charged by the airfield and covers the cost of providing fire cover (mandatory for training) and air traffic services.
- Circuit Fees – as the most efficient way to practice taking off and landing, you will fly a number of circuits. These consist of flying a (theoretically) rectangular pattern to and from a designated runway or training square. Each circuit includes a departure & climb, level flight, four 90 degree turns and a descent & approach back to your starting point. During the course you will probably fly 50 to 100 of these circuits. Some airfields charge for each circuit and these fees can soon mount up, increasing your outlay significantly.
- Membership Fees – to learn to fly, you need to be a member of a flying club for insurance purposes. Most schools will automatically enrol you in their club when you start training but watch out for annual membership fees.
- Exam Fees – You will need to sit the theoretical knowledge exams for your PPL(H). Not every school is authorised to conduct examinations and you may have to go to an approved facility. Make sure you know how much an organisation is proposing to charge you for sitting an exam before you decide where to go.
- Ground School – The PPL syllabus requires you to spend some time studying theoretical knowlege. You can usually purchase the necessary books at your flying school and you will need to undertake a few hours of self study each week. If you require additional ground school, then an hourly rate usually applies. It is rarely practical for an instructor to teach you the entire theoretical knowledge syllabus.
- Discounts – Some schools offer significant discounts for payment up front. Whilst a reduced hourly rate may seem attractive, you must consider the school’s creditworthiness. If the flying school goes bust, you will almost certainly lose any money deposited. Always ask yourself the question:- Would I rather have my money in my bank account or theirs? If a school is offering really attractive discounts for cash up front, it is probably because they desperately need cashflow.
In choosing a school, it is as well to look at the training fleet. Ask yourself questions such as:-
Are they hangared overnight?
How old are they and which variant of each type is available?
What is the ratio of helicopters to instructors and students? What are the implications for your training when significant maintenance is required?
Training can be quite tiring, so you would be well advised to pick a location that is relatively near your home base. A two hour drive each side of a two hour lesson is probably a bit much and fatigue can have a negative effect on your ability to learn and concentrate.
Also consider the type of aerodrome where you will be operating. A larger airport with full air traffic control, formal operating procedures and commercial traffic can be a bit daunting at first but you will soon get used to it and accept that as normal. It sharpens up your radio work and requires you to comply with specific instructions. It will be a bit of a shock when you fly to a small informally controlled airstrip where procedures are much more relaxed but there is a greater onus on you to see and avoid other traffic and make your own decisions.
Learning at a smaller strip may allow you to concentrate on learning to fly first and there are generally fewer restrictions. It is easy to pick up bad habits and you are less likely to develop good radio work. You are likely to find controlled airspace and larger airports more intimidating when you eventually venture away from home.
Also consider how often and when you will want to fly. It can be very frustrating if it is a nice day and you are free but the flying school is closed.
By far the most important consideration is your instructor. You will be spending considerable time with them and you will develop a rapport. It is generally beneficial to stick with one instructor, particularly in the early stages. However their availabilty may mean that you will sometimes fly with different instructors. This can be useful as long as it does not go to extremes. A different person every week for 10 weeks on the trot will not help your progress. Try to find out if instructors are standardized and look for a stable full-time instructional staff which usually indicates a good quality school. Whilst there are many excellent part-time instructors, there is no doubt that those flying full time have better currency and are likely to give better value.
Last, do not allow promises of employment, future deals or discounts to override your preference for quality. Promises are easy to make but difficult to keep – especially if a school makes the same promise to every potential student.