by Lyle Watts
A Commercial Helicopter licence is an expensive proposition to say the least. Most pilots pay anywhere from $46,000 to $120,000 for their training. In my 30 years in the training industry, I have only come across a few students who actually asked most (but not all) of these questions when checking out a school. I suspect that many candidates ask more questions of their used car salesperson. (You see, most students have to acquire an old 'beater' to drive while training, having sold their prized sports car to pay for the course.)
Here is the list of questions that should be considered carefully when looking for a flight training school.
The first few questions are basically financial in nature.
Let's get started.
1. What is the TOTAL cost of the training likely to be?
Ok, I have never met a prospective pilot that didn't ask this question. However, there is more to it than meets the eye. Total cost is not the only factor. Ask for a breakdown of costs. The final price may or may not include:
a) Aircraft Cost
This will vary from operator to operator, even for the same type of aircraft. Do not assume a lower cost is always better. Sometimes a higher cost here is really only a reflection of a newer, more modern training aircraft that will cost more to insure. This may be an acceptable expense. It could mean that they operate a more comprehensive maintenance program or have a superior classroom facility. Both these items directly affect the success and safety of the flight training program. They are very important, and you should be prepared to pay more for this valuable benefit. On the other hand, the school may simply be located in the 'high rent district' close to a major city centre, or possibly the owner's BMW needs a new engine.
Most helicopter schools charge a flat rate per hour, therefore you pay the same rate for the aircraft whether you are dual (with instructor) or solo. Just make sure that you understand whether or not you are paying for the instructor's fee, on top of what you have already been quoted for the aircraft itself. Incidentally, you will probably pay the same instructor's fee, whether your instructor is a junior Class IV about to start on his first student (possibly you!), or an 8000 hour, Class I veteran of the flying industry. Which would you rather have?
You've got to have it to fly, and it can cost anywhere from $35.00 to $160.00 an hour, depending on the type of training aircraft. Make sure it's included in your quote. Training schools usually include it automatically. Some "charter" companies, however, may not.
The company operating the helicopter, is required by law to carry liability insurance. They are also probably required by their friendly banker, to carry hull insurance (for 'collision' damage). However, there is nothing to say they can't pass that cost on to you, their customer. I used to work for one outfit that routinely tacked $1000 on to the bill, to cover the "increased risk of flight training".
e) Pre (and Post) Flight Briefings
These are the short 10 to 20 minute preparatory briefings you should expect to get before and after each flight lesson. Although most airplane schools charge extra for this, most helicopter schools will tell you "it's included in the flight." A word of caution, however . . . Some schools take this statement literally! I said earlier that you want this briefing before you get in the aircraft. The instructor who waits until the engine is running to give you your briefing, is wasting a large sum of your money! Believe me, I have seen it happen all too often. This happens, mostly due to the fact, that instructors are often paid four to six times as much for flight instruction, as for ground instruction. Perhaps it's human nature to be that way, but I know of at least one school that guarantees you will get the briefing, or the flight is free! Obviously, that school appreciates the importance of a flight briefing.
f) Ground School
This is the all important and often overlooked part of your career training. Ideally, this should be taught by helicopter pilots that are also your flight instructors. To entice a highly qualified pilot out of the air and onto the ground, he will have to be paid according to his experience level. Since you, the student, will ultimately have to carry this cost, you can expect to pay more for this level of expertise in ground training. The result is high quality, comprehensive, ground school instruction. Believe me, it is worth it! Your performance in the air (the really expensive part) is directly related to your performance on the ground (the relatively inexpensive part). Do not accept a lazy instructor's suggestion that you can save a few hundred dollars by either "studying the books on your own", or "signing up for the $250 private airplane ground school next door". You need better than that to compete in today's job market.
g) Books and Equipment
Expect to pay $300 to $400 for a good set of course materials.
h) Licence Fees and Flight Test Fees
Expect about $350 for various licence and exam fees and up to $500 for flight test fees.
i) Safety Equipment
A helmet will set you back about $1600 if you buy a new one. You may not require one for the course, but if you are going to work as a professional pilot, you will probably want to buy one eventually. Why wait until you are finished with your training to purchase one? You might as well 'bite the bullet' and get the safety benefit of using the helmet while you train. On the other hand, some schools will rent you a helmet while you train. And speaking of safety, you might also want to ask if the school has had any student accidents.
Yes, you have to eat and sleep while you train, and if you are from out of town this is a significant cost. Some schools offer reduced rate or even 'free' accommodation while you train with them. Check if your intended school does.
2. What is your payment schedule like?
Unfortunately, not many training schools can offer financing. After all, they are supposed to be expert pilots, not bankers. But they too, have to pay their bills when they come due. It is not unusual for a school to ask for a deposit of around $1000 at the time you enrol, and then ask that you keep your account current at all times. This is a reasonable request. You should not, however, be required to put the whole $50,000 down when you start. I'll tell you why.
In British Columbia, Canada, where our school is located, all schools must be registered or accredited with the Private Career Training Institutions Agency (PCTIA). (Similar requirements exist in most provinces/states etc. around the world. But check in your intended area, .. these requirements are in place to protect you, the student!) A requirement of this registration is that schools must contribute a 1% fee to the Tuition Completion Fund, to cover student tuition deposits. In case of financial trouble with the school, this fund ensures that your money will not be at risk. (This assumes, of course, that the school is registered and has paid into the fund to cover all deposits!) The amount the school has to pay into this fund, is calculated according to the size of the tuition paid by the student. Be careful though ...the definition of tuition does not include the cost of the training equipment such as the helicopter. Therefore, out of a $50,000.00 course, only around $6000 to $8000 may actually be classed as tuition and therefore be covered by the Tuition Completion Fund. This would mean that any money over and above this amount that the student has on deposit will not be covered in case of financial difficulty with the school. It doesn't make good financial sense for you to give them very large deposits that won't be 'earned' until the actual flying takes place. You would be placing your own money at risk if anything were to happen to the school.
If you are training at an school that is not under this plan, then you are on your own, and none of your money is protected.
The only financial reason I can come up with for a school wanting a huge down-payment, is that they need your money to cover their past operating expenses. Why take the risk? Simply tell them that your Uncle Harry said that, "You can only make payments of $5000 at a time." Why not make that interest yourself? If you have to borrow to take the training course, you will at least be delaying the start of your own loan payments. If all of this seems too confusing for you, I'll simplify it . . . Don't make a large deposit . . . Pay as you go!
3. What is your refund policy if I choose to leave the course early?
In B.C., the Private Career Training Institutions Agency also sets a minimum refund policy. The problem is . . .the commission's refund policy was set up with much less expensive training courses in mind. As an example, if you have completed 30 hours of the course, and then decide to leave, the commission gives the school the legal right to keep 100% of the course fees (ie. All your money)! It is simply not a reasonable settlement, considering the high cost of helicopter training. A reputable firm will refund all but a small portion of your unused funds on deposit, regardless of what their 'legal' rights are.
Make sure you tie this down in writing before you sign up. Otherwise it could cost you a bundle, if for some reason you have to leave your course early. (Incidentally, this is another excellent reason not to make a huge down-payment!)
Now that most of the financial concerns are out of the way, lets focus on quality of training.
4. How many aircraft do you have on line at any one time?
Even if you are their only student, two aircraft 'on line' (available at a moment's notice) are better than one. Helicopters have a habit of occasionally going 'unserviceable' (requiring maintenance) and this may delay your training. While some delays are inevitable, I have known many a ship to be off line for weeks waiting for a part to arrive from the factory, or the maintenance engineer to get back from holidays.
Availability of at least one backup aircraft is desirable if you wish to reduce interruptions in your training.
5. What types of helicopters do you have available?
Each different type of helicopter that you are authorized to fly, must be listed on your licence. Let's say, for economic reasons, that you have chosen a light, piston engine helicopter as your primary training aircraft (such as the Robinson R22, Schweitzer 300, or even the old Bell 47). Ironically, it is unlikely that the first commercial operator you work for, will even have that type of aircraft in their fleet! You should realize, that the turbine engine helicopter, although far too expensive to complete all your basic training on, is the machine of choice in commercial operations. A turbine type endorsement is not required by the Ministry of Transport for the issue of the commercial licence, but you will be increasing your chances in the job market if you are endorsed on the Bell 206 or MD500. Ask if the school has turbine helicopters available for endorsement purposes, locally, not 500 miles away! But don't carry this idea too far, I do not recommend that you try to stuff 4 or 5 different types on your licence, before you leave the course (thereby becoming the proverbial "master of none").
6. How many instructors do you have on staff, and what Class Instructor rating do they hold?
It has been proven that your performance will likely be best, if you stay mainly with one instructor for most of your course. On the other hand, what if he comes down with the Siberian Flu or takes his accumulated 2 months holiday in the middle of your course. As with the aircraft, it is desirable to have a backup instructor as well, to minimize delays in your training program. It may also be helpful to have some experience with an alternate instructor to allow comparison of flying techniques.
Even instructors have to start somewhere! There are many flight exercises that even a junior Class IV instructor may teach adequately. In fact, a Class IV instructor must work under the direct supervision of a Class II or better. As mentioned earlier though, a Class I or II instructor has been at it a long time, and is likely to give you superior instruction in most exercises.
Another benefit to look for is a Designated Pilot Examiner (or DPE) on staff. You won't get any 'breaks' on the flight test, but there are two other distinct advantages. First, if there is an examiner on staff, you can bet that all the instructors are fully familiar with each and every flight test requirement. Your instructor will make sure that you are absolutely ready for the flight test before he recommends you. Secondly, if you have to go outside the school to book your examiner, you may have to wait several weeks for an open slot, if it's a busy time of the year.
7. Is your school open year round?
Some schools are operated by working 'charter' companies. This may be good, provided they don't abandon you in the summer to chase the bigger dollars up north.
If they are a larger dedicated school, they will be open year round, and possibly even seven days a week. While I don't recommend that you try to train seven days a week, having the option of weekend flying available to you is a valuable benefit. This is especially important if you are behind in your schedule due to circumstances such as poor weather, or illness.
8. Do you run a complete in-house Ground School Program?
As discussed earlier, you want to be sure that you are getting the attention you need in ground school. Don't be too concerned about your previous educational background. Unlike in public school, you will be highly motivated to learn this material. A good ground school instructor will be able to help you with any 'holes' they find. If your school runs their own ground school classes, they have a direct interest in your progress at all times.
Also, be sure to ask what sorts of training aids they have available. Features such as several classrooms, models, a reference library, computer assisted learning programs, video taped presentations, audio cassettes, simulators, and independent study areas, all work to provide more value per flight training dollar.
Ask how the students do on the written exam. Find out the average passing grade. Has anyone failed the exam recently? As I said before, you want to be sure that the school gives this particular question the importance it deserves.
9. How long does it take on average to complete your course?
Assuming full time attendance (5 days a week):
Less than 3 months is probably too short. You need sufficient time to absorb and retain all the information you will be presented with. If you try to cram it in too quickly, you will forget too much.
More than 7 months is probably too long. You must have as much continuity as possible to get the maximum benefit from your flight time. If there are large gaps in your flying schedule, you will waste too much time trying to catch up to where you were previously.
Somewhere in between is ideal. You must remember that factors such as the time of year (poor weather delays), part-time attendance (not everyone can afford to do this full time), aircraft or instructor unservicability (it can happen to the best of us), or personal financial delays (waiting for Uncle Harry to send that next payment) can all extend the time it takes to complete the course.
What you really need to know, is that the school is capable of successfully handling and adjusting to changes from the ideal program, to what you require.
10. Does the school have an IFR helicopter and its own Helicopter Flight Simulator?
The Canadian Commercial Helicopter Pilot Licence requires that 10 hours of instrument time be completed.
The first 5 hours may be taken either in an airplane simulator (a legal, yet again not very effective solution for a helicopter pilot), or a helicopter simulator. Obviously the Helicopter simulator is the most cost effective way to meet this requirement. If the school owns its own simulator, then they can coordinate your instrument ground training with the portion that must be flown in the helicopter itself.
You must take the remaining 5 hours in a helicopter. I suggest, that since this flight exercise is compulsory, you might as well get the most benefit from it. You can accomplish this by utilizing a properly equipped IFR helicopter (meets the requirements of Instrument Flight Rules), as opposed to a helicopter with the minimum instrument panel in it. If the helicopter was designed for instrument training it has a more efficient cockpit layout. This means that you will probably learn more in the same amount of flight time. Your demonstrated skill level on the flight test will be higher overall, and there will be a corresponding increase in flight safety.
While you're at it, ask if the instructor holds a Group 4 Instrument Rating (Group 4 means Helicopters). Surprisingly enough, an instructor is not required to actually hold the instrument rating to teach basic instrument flight. Given the choice of flying with an IFR instructor or not, I'd say take the IFR one . . . it will probably cost you the same anyway!
11. Does your company have a job placement program?
No matter what you may have been told, I know of no company that has been able to place all of its graduate pilots. No company can truthfully guarantee you a job before you start training, and expect to meet that commitment every time. Much of the hiring that goes on in the industry, is based on factors such as skill level, personality, attitude, flexibility in relocation, and salary requirements. It is practically impossible for anyone to accurately size up all these factors before you start training!
The best any reputable firm can do, is offer to consider you on a priority basis, if they hire internally, or do their best to keep you informed of any openings they hear of.
Training with a company that is primarily a 'charter' company (one that operates commercial helicopters for hire on a contract or daily basis) may be advantageous. After all, if they are going to hire someone, why not hire the pilot that they have just finished training. On the other hand, if they don't take you, you will always have other operators wondering why they didn't. Need I say more? This is a tough call.
There are, however, many training schools that are not primarily 'charter' outfits. Since they are not in direct competition with these charter companies, they can also offer advanced pilot training without creating a conflict of interest. If you are attending this type of school, you will have the opportunity to meet, network, and socialize with several high time working industry pilots. These contacts may prove to be invaluable later on. Most pilots remember how it was, getting that all important 'first job', and will often do their best to help you along if they can. Aviation is not a business where 'who you know' means everything, but . . . it helps.
One final note . . . Try to meet with your prospective instructor, and if all else looks good, ask to take a 'familiarization' flight. Make note of how interested the instructor seems in you, and your training needs. Does he seem like the sort of person whom you could get along with fairly easily? Remember, you will be relying on his or her personality and good judgment to get you through the course skilfully and efficiently. But ... it should also be a pleasant experience for you. We have discussed a number of important analytical questions to consider, but don't ignore your 'gut' feelings. They may also give valuable input to your decision.
The decision to enter a career in aviation should not be taken lightly. This is literally, your life we are talking about. Consider the implications of these questions carefully, and apply yourself to getting and documenting solid answers from those schools you talk to. I assure you, that you will be in a much better position to decide which school, is truly capable of giving you the most value for your training dollar. It should be clear by now, --- a decision based on price alone, could turn out to be disastrous. Search for quality and value!
Good Luck and Safe Flying!
About the Author
Lyle Watts holds an Airline Transport Pilot Licence valid for helicopters, endorsed with the Class I Instructor and Group IV Instrument Ratings. He has been involved with flight training in B.C. for over 30 years, and has served as a DPE in the Pacific Region since 1981.
He is currently the Chief Flight Instructor for Heli-College Canada Training Inc. located in Langley, B.C., Canada
This article was written by Lyle Watts and reprinted with their permission - Dec 16/09
Web Site: www.heli-college.com