Top 10 Tips to Find Your Best Helicopter Flight School
Learning to fly a helicopter is one of the most fun, rewarding and exciting adventures that you can challenge yourself to do. Even for current fixed-wing pilots, completing a PPL(H) (Private Pilot Licence) is a whole new ball game and opens up the sky (and most large fields) for you to play in.
But as each school offers different benefits and varied facilities, how do you find the right school to fly with who will also be the right fit long term?
Our team are all pilots or are currently learning to fly, so we have each had to search for a flight school at one point or another and know first-hand what to look for. We’ve teamed together to come up with our best tips of finding the school for you.
1. Go and chat to them
Any reputable school which is focussed on the student will always be more than happy to meet with you over a casual tea or coffee, to discuss what you want to get out of flying so you can see whether it’s something for you. Give them a call and arrange to visit – it should be a no-commitment chat where you find out which helicopters you could potentially learn to fly, the advantages of each one, how the course is structured and you can also see what the team is like and get a general feel for the school.
Some schools may suggest you to book in for a trial lesson on your first visit before talking anything through; whilst having a flight is certainly recommended so you can see if you enjoy flying a helicopter before making such a large commitment, it should be secondary to talking through your personal flying goals. It is also a chance for them to gain an understanding of what style of learning suits you best.
2. Check out the fleet
You wouldn’t choose a driving school who teaches you in a 1978 Reliant Robin, and it’s no different with learning to fly a helicopter!
A good indicator of a quality school is the level of investment in the helicopters they operate, as well as the continued maintenance and upkeep. Your safety is paramount! Older helicopters aren’t necessarily a bad sign (they are built to be long-lasting) but a paint job from the 70s, an out-of-date GPS which looks like it’s from your Grandad’s garage, and oil running down the side of the already-dirty exterior is not a positive sign.
What to look for are helicopters which are always kept clean and sparkly, with a modern set of avionics (the instruments in the cockpit) and high quality tech, such as iPads, that you can use in flight (for navigation, not Instagram).
Quality aircraft may add to the hourly cost slightly, but in the long run it’s definitely worth paying the extra to fly with an operator who focusses on quality not their profit first and foremost.
3. Ask around!
The helicopter industry is not a big place – if you know anyone involved then have a conversation with them about the various flight schools and see if they could recommend any of the places that you have in mind. Chances are they’ll have heard of them or can at least speak to someone else who has. You can even speak to people at the airfield they operate from and get an idea about their reputation from those who see them every day.
Take peoples’ advice seriously and avoid any unreputable options – it’s a large investment and you want to be sure to make the right decision.
4. What are the actual costs?
Price is a large factor when deciding on a flight school – Lessons are expensive, but it is not only the price per hour you need to look at, there are quite a few factors that need to be considered here.
Check there are no hidden costs e.g non-refundable block rates or training bundles; a 10 – 20 hours block rate may be cost effective, but not if life gets in the way and your circumstances change 20 hours into your training leaving you out of pocket. Something else to look out for is the offer of a promise of a certain training milestone after each block of training – is it realistic? After all you cannot guarantee anything as everyone learns at a different pace. If you reach the hours without achieving it, you may feel disheartened and this will affect your flying, meaning it may then actually take you longer still to get to it!
It is important to look at the way pricing is presented. A good tip here is to see if the flight school has one pricing list which covers all of the services on offer, in a clear and simple format with all costs up front e.g exams, landing and circuit fees. That way you can calculate costs more accurately. Also note that VAT is often excluded from given pricing, so that is one to watch out for but is perfectly normal.
We look to combine fairness & clarity at ICE and are currently offering a fixed price PPL (H) for students starting their training. See more about our Fixed Price PPL here.
5. Find out about Scheduling
It’s important that flying lessons are centred around your availability and the stage of flying you are at at the time. Look for a school who are willing to accommodate you at occasional times outside of the “norm”. Sometimes traffic, work or other commitments will mean that a 8.30 am start for example doesn’t work for you. Look for a dedicated organisation willing to help; after all learning to fly should be fun – unlike sitting for hours in traffic!
At the start of your training, lessons should be approximately an hour long – much more and you can get overloaded with information which can be negative to your training. In our experience, about a 3-hour window for everything is a good benchmark for a 1-hour flight sortie. Your flying lesson should not be a rushed experience, you should receive value for moneyAs you progress, you will be able to fly for longer periods or multiple times in one day with no issues. Your instructor will be the best judge of this.
It’s also imperative that you are given enough time to have a full exercise briefing before your flight as well as the crucial pre-flight coffee/toilet combo (in that order). Once the flight finishes, there should be a decent post-flight briefing and a chat about what you’ll be doing next time. A good instructor will suggest some reading material to look through at home in preparation for your next lesson; it definitely helps get in the zone!
6. Meet the Instructors
We firmly believe the key to a great school are great instructors who are not only highly trained, but that share the same ethos. Not only is it much more enjoyable to learn from dedicated, interesting instructors who care about you individually and are willing to think outside of the box to help, but it also improves your training and makes you a safer pilot.
An instructor with plenty of experience from a commercial flight background is a must. They will have been exposed to and learned from the challenges of flight, in many different situations/ environments and completed important & challenging theoretical knowledge exams, which make them well rounded, informed instructors.
When looking for a helicopter flying school, have a chat with all of their instructors and see how you get on with them! Ask plenty of questions: how long they’ve been at the school, what it is about their school that makes them stand out from the rest, even ask a technical question and see what the response is like! If coffee, biscuits & checking their Instagram is more important to them than chatting to and helping a budding pilot, it may be indicative of the level of service that is offered.
7. See the Facilities
When it comes to the operating base of the organisation, size is not everything, but a nice facility is an added bonus! Perfectly good training facilities can be run out of a few small offices. What matters is that there are resources available for you to learn, study and relax in-between without other added distractions. When looking around ensure that you feel comfortable and that it’s a good working environment suited to your needs; after all you will be spending a great deal of time there.
8. Decide on Your Goals
Your personal goals as a future pilot have a lot to do with where you learn to fly. Do you intend to fly privately or are you looking to make a career out of it? If it is as a career see what the school can offer you after you complete your PPL – are there employment opportunities, hour building packages or do they have the industry contacts to point you in the right direction?
For those who are looking to obtain a PPL (H) and would like to go on to hire a helicopter occasionally, is their fleet available for private hire and can you take them for overnight trips?
If your goal is to purchase a helicopter, then maybe you want to learn in that model of aircraft or at least something very similar. In this case if you already know what you want to be flying in the future, then look for a school that specialises in that area. A good school will have a wealth of knowledge about each type and can steer you in the right direction.
9. Safety Check
Closely tied to all of the above, safety is always at the forefront of everyone’s mind when it comes to learning to flying and should not be missed out of your decision process when choosing a flight school. Your safety is paramount, so not only should you be trained to be the safest, most competent Pilot you can be, but full transparency of helicopter records, servicing and maintenance is vitally important. Look at the structure of the school, do they have a dedicated operations staff and a Head of Training whose sole focus is just that? There can be no corners cut when it comes to safety.
Training organisations who operate within the UK come under the category of either a DTO (Declared Training Organisation) or an ATO (Approved Training Organisation) ; contrary to what you may initially think, this is not an indicator of safety!
Irrespective of whether it is an ATO or DTO the individual courses themselves still go through a rigorous approval process by the CAA when first issued. For you as a student, this means that for PPL, LAPL and Type Rating courses, it doesn’t matter whether you are learning at a DTO or ATO – the course you receive remains the same and in accordance with strict legislation.
Here at ICE Helicopters we are a DTO, however all of our instructional team have extensive previous experience operating as ATOs, so as part of our commitment to flight safety we run our flight school to the same high standard anyway and even employ an external safety manager to conduct regular audits.
The main difference between the two is the approval process and paperwork requirements; a DTO will inform the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) that they are offering training and can begin immediately, whereas an ATO will need to submit an application (along with Operations, Organisation & Safety Management manuals) which then requires CAA approval before commencement. The issue with getting an ATO is therefore cost – ATOs are costly to upkeep and this cost may then filter down to the student. An ATO is mainly designed for organisations offering CPL, Instrument/ Examiner and Type Ratings on larger helicopters (more than 5 seats) due to the complexity.
10. You’re allowed to change your mind!
With all the due diligence in the world, you can occasionally end up taking flying lessons at a school which you then feel isn’t quite right for you.
Learning a challenging new skill like flying a helicopter is a very personal thing; so should you find a certain aspect which isn’t quite working out for you e.g aircraft availability, gelling with the instructors, or maybe you feel that your training is not progressing at the rate you expected/hoped, talk to the school! Explain the issues and see if anything can be done; but if you believe you may be more comfortable elsewhere it is completely your decision where you learn and there is nothing to stop you switching. Make a decision on your gut feeling – it’s usually the right one! Your training records belong to you and can very easily be transferred between flight schools without issue, should you wish.
We’re here to help…
For any advice or guidance, please get in touch with our brilliant team and we’re more than happy to help – anytime!
Tel: 0207 112 8835