Flight schools

An institution that provides the education and training necessary for a student to learn to pilot an aircraft.


In the early days of aviation, there were no government regulations to control the certification of pilots. Learning to fly was largely a matter of experimentation, observation of others who knew how to fly, and trial and error. As the field of aviation evolved, the need for more formal methods of training pilots became apparent. Flight schools first began to appear in the late 1920’s. Parks College was the first flight school to be awarded a Transport and Limited Commercial Ground and Flying School Certificate, granted in 1929 by the U.S. government. During the Great Depression years of the 1930’s, the few flight schools in existence were fortunate if they were able to stay in business, and significant growth in flight training did not occur until the early 1940’s.

The outbreak of World War II generated a need for a number of pilots, each of whom needed to be trained to a certain standard in a relatively short amount of time. In 1939, the U.S. Congress appropriated four million dollars to create the Civilian Pilot Training Program. The flight training done under this program was conducted at more than 400 colleges nationwide. After World War II, there continued to be a strong interest in aviation, particularly by the returning veterans. The G.I. Bill (1944) provided funding for veterans to obtain flight training, and thousands of students took advantage of this program. This source of income provided a foundation for flight schools to continue to grow and prosper.

Pilot training today is regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), an agency of the federal government. The FAA issues Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs), which are the rules that govern aviation in the United States. These rules include the certification of pilots and aircraft and the governance of flight operations. Flight schools train prospective pilots to meet the certification requirements specified by the FARs for various levels of pilot certificates and ratings.

Types of Schools

There are a number of different types of institutions that provide flight training and education in the United States. These include fixed-base operators (FBOs), collegiate aviation programs, proprietary professional aviation academies, and military programs. The type of flight school best suited to a particular student depends on that student’s goals and intentions in aviation.

FBOs are businesses that operate at airports. They often provide a variety of services to the aviation community, including aircraft rental, maintenance, refueling, and the sale of aviation equipment, in addition to pilot training. Pilot training at this type of facility is typically tailored to an individual’s schedule and personal goals. This type of flight school is usually attended by students who are interested in flying for pleasure or for personal business transportation.

Collegiate aviation programs, available at both two-year and four-year institutions, are designed for those students who wish to pursue a career as a pilot. Both types of institutions typically provide flight training through at least the Commercial Pilot Certificate, and usually the Certified Flight Instructor Certificate. Graduates of two-year programs receive an associate of science degree, whereas graduates of four-year programs receive a bachelor of science degree. In addition to completing the required ground and flight training for a Commercial Pilot Certificate, students at these institutions complete course work in a variety of areas important to understanding aviation. These may include maintenance, weather, aerodynamics, and aviation management courses. There are more than one hundred colleges and universities, large and small, that offer flight training as part of the curriculum for a degree. The Council on Aviation Accreditation is the accrediting body for collegiate aviation programs, and most reputable college programs have received accreditation by this organization.

Proprietary professional aviation academies are also designed for those students who wish to enter the aviation profession as a pilot. These schools typically provide training through at least the Commercial Pilot Certificate, and often through the Certified Flight Instructor Certificate. Enrollment in this type of school is most often a full-time endeavor. Since the late 1980’s, the educational requirement for career advancement to a position as a pilot for a major airline has been a four-year college degree, so a number of proprietary aviation academies are also associated with a collegiate institution.

Military flight schools are utilized to train those personnel accepted into a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces for a pilot position. These programs provide high-quality initial training in basic piloting skills, followed by training in the specific type of aircraft and operation to which the person is to be assigned. The training period for both the initial course and the advanced course is typically one year each. The U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard each have personnel assigned to pilot positions. The training for these personnel are conducted at various military bases throughout the country.

Whatever the type of institution, a flight school will provide a fleet of aircraft in which to conduct training, and a staff of certified flight instructors (CFIs) to provide flight training. Both the size of the aircraft fleet and the size of the CFI staff may vary from one to more than one hundred.

Types of Training Offered

At any of the civilian institutions described above, flight training may be conducted under either FAR Part 61 or FAR Part 141. Part 141 specifically describes minimum requirements regarding training facilities, personnel, course syllabi, and student performance rates for FAA-approved flight schools. Programs conducted under Part 141 are subject to continuing oversight and approval by the FAA. Collegiate and proprietary aviation academies are typically certified under FAR Part 141, although a number of FBOs also have Part 141 certification. FAR Part 61 specifically governs the certification of aircraft and pilots, and flight training can also be conducted under this part. Often, training for students who are interested in flying for their personal benefit or enjoyment is conducted under Part 61 at a local airport FBO, whereas training for students who desire a career as a pilot is conducted at a Part 141 school. Part 141 schools tend to be more structured and formalized, and Part 61 schools tend to be tailored more toward the individual requirements of the person receiving training. For example, a businessperson who wants to obtain a pilot certificate for transportation purposes may desire to participate in flight training only twice a week and at a different time each week. This type of schedule is often best accommodated at a local airport FBO under Part 61. A person interested in a career as a pilot would most likely desire to pursue this goal in a full-time capacity, and many Part 141 schools can accommodate this arrangement.

Types of Certificates

There are a number of types of pilot certificates issued by the FAA. These include the Recreational Pilot Certificate, the Private Pilot Certificate, the Commercial Pilot Certificate, the Certified Flight Instructor Certificate and the Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) Certificate. Training to obtain any one of these certificates involves a specified minimum of both flight and ground training, often called ground school. Both the Recreational and Private Pilot Certificates are designed for individuals who wish to fly for their own personal enjoyment. The Recreational Pilot Certificate has a number of limitations, such as the requirement that recereational pilots remain within 50 nautical miles of the departure airport, carrying no more than one passenger, and that a recreational pilot not fly an aircraft with more than four seats. The Private Pilot Certificate allows more freedom, with no limit on passengers or distance from the departure airport.

The Commercial Pilot Certificate is required in order for a pilot to be paid for flying an aircraft. The CFI Certificate is required to be able to instruct others in flight training, and the ATP Certificate is required to be a captain (or pilot in command) of an aircraft operated by a commercial air carrier. In addition to these certificates, an important rating that can be added to the Private and Commercial Certificates is the instrument rating. The ATP Certificate essentially includes an instrument rating as part of its privileges and limitations. The instrument rating allows pilots to fly in bad weather, called instrument meteorological conditions, which include such things as clouds or low visibilities. Before obtaining an instrument rating, pilots are restricted to visual meteorological conditions, which means they must maintain certain minimum visibilities and distances from clouds. If a person intends to use aviation as a dependable and regular means of personal transportation, obtainment of an instrument rating is essential. If a pilot is to fly for hire, an instrument rating is likewise required.

One additional rating that must be obtained before flying an airplane that has more than one engine is a multiengine rating. Since most flight students first learn to fly in a single-engine aircraft, this rating is usually added to an existing Private or Commercial Single-Engine Certificate. CFI and ATP Certificates also specify whether the pilot has single-engine privileges, multiengine privileges, or both.

Ground Training

Training conducted at flight schools, while often termed flight training, in reality consists of both ground training and training in an actual aircraft. Ground training may be conducted in a formal classroom setting, with a number of students receiving instruction from a teacher, or it may be conducted informally by a student’s flight instructor before or after a flight. Typically, Part 61 flight schools tend to use more informal methods, whereas larger Part 141 flight schools and college programs tend to use traditional classroom settings for ground school. Again, the best method depends on the interests and background of the flight student.

Ground school covers a variety of topics, including applicable FARs, aircraft systems and performance, aerodynamics, weather, flight planning, and navigation. Often, flight schools own one or more flight-training devices in addition to their fleet of aircraft. These flight-training devices are more simplified versions of what are commonly known as flight simulators. Most often, they have a cockpit mock-up and a rudimentary visual display. However, there is no movement of the device in response to aircraft control movements. These devices are used most heavily during training for the Instrument Rating. Students working on this rating receive training in these flight-training devices in addition to conventional ground school and flight training in an aircraft.

Obtaining a Pilot Certificate

To obtain any level of pilot certificate or rating, an applicant must do a number of things. First, the ground and flight instruction specified by the FARs must be obtained from and certified by a CFI. A knowledge test, administered in a computer-based testing format, must be taken and passed with a minimum score of 70 percent. An appropriate medical certificate must be obtained from an aviation medical examiner for the level of certificate desired. For example, for a Private Pilot Certificate, a third-class medical certificate is required. For a Commercial Pilot Certificate, a second-class medical certificate is required, and for an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate, a first-class medical certificate is required. Finally, a practical test is conducted by a pilot examiner. This test consists of both an oral exam and a flight exam. During the oral exam, the examiner will cover items such as aerodynamics, weather, aircraft systems, aircraft performance, and flight planning. During the flight, a series of maneuvers will be evaluated to determine whether the applicant meets the minimum standards specified for the certificate for which he or she is applying. If the check ride is satisfactory, the student will be issued the certificate for which he or she applied.

Selecting a Flight School

A flight school is best selected by considering the needs of an individual. Such items as the location of the school and the schedule of lessons are key issues, as are the types of training typically conducted and the structure of the school, for instance, whether it is geared toward those interested in aviation as a profession or toward those interested in learning to fly for fun. Other things to consider are the size and availability of the training aircraft fleet and the availability of instructional staff. The school’s safety record, how long the school has been in operation, and its reputation are also important. In addition, maintenance of the training fleet should be examined. Many schools offer an introductory flight lesson, during which a CFI will allow a prospective student to manipulate the controls of the airplane in flight. This provides an opportunity for the prospective student to examine the flight environment firsthand, as well as a chance to experience a representative training aircraft and instructor.

One aspect of the decision regarding a flight school selection involves whether to select a FAR Part 141-approved flight school or a FAR Part 61 flight school. To obtain a Private Pilot Certificate, thirty-five hours of flight training are required under Part 141, whereas forty hours of flight training are required under Part 61. However, the national average of flight hours to obtain a Private Pilot Certificate ranges from sixty-five to seventy hours, so it would be an error to base a decision to use a Part 141 school instead of a Part 61 facility solely on the flight-time requirement for a Private Pilot Certificate. If a student is interested in pursuing a Commercial Pilot Certificate, there is a flight-time benefit in utilizing a Part 141 flight school. The flight time required for a Commercial Pilot Certificate is 250 hours under Part 61 and 190 hours under Part 141.

Cost of Flight Training

The cost of flight training varies widely depending on the area of the United States in which a student resides and the type of flight school attended. Many flight schools offer package deals for flight instruction, but it is important to understand what items are included in the package. During flight training in an aircraft, both an airplane rental fee and a flight instructor’s hourly fee are charged. Aircraft used for instruction usually have a digital recording clock, called a Hobbs meter, which records the amount of flight time for a given flight by subtracting the Hobbs meter reading at the beginning of the flight from the Hobbs meter reading at the end of a flight. Preflight and postflight briefing time, which is conducted by a student’s CFI and which is necessary for effective flight training, is also billed.

The most common type of package offer includes the cost of these items up to a certain number of hours, with excess hours becoming the student’s responsibility if they are required. Other packages may guarantee obtainment of a certificate, with no maximum number of hours specified, although there are often many other stipulations in this kind of package. The minimum time required by the FARs to obtain a Private Pilot Certificate under FAR Part 61 is forty hours: twenty hours with an instructor, called dual instruction, and twenty hours of solo flight time. For flight-school package offer-comparison purposes, however, an average student usually requires from sixty-five to seventy hours to obtain a Private Pilot Certificate, with forty to forty-five flight hours of dual instruction and twenty-five hours of solo flight time.

The total cost of a university education, including the obtainment of Commercial Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor Certificates as well as a four-year degree at a private university, can equal more than $100,000. However, much of this cost would also be incurred in the course of obtaining a bachelor’s degree from a private university in a field other than aviation. The cost is typically less at state-supported universities and less still at junior colleges or community colleges. Often, two-year program graduates can continue their studies at a four-year university to complete a bachelor of science degree.

The cost to attend a proprietary professional academy, usually resulting in the obtainment of Commercial Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor Certificates, can range from approximately $50,000 to $85,000. This type of program is often selected by individuals who have already obtained a four-year college degree and who are interested in changing careers. The sole focus on flight training allows such individuals to accelerate their training so they can begin to pursue their new career path. In addition, there are students who choose to enroll in this type of program right after high school, and then serve as certified flight instructors while earning their college degrees.

Other Types of Flight Schools

The preponderance of flight schools in existence in the United States are for airplane pilots. However, in addition to training for pilot certificates for airplanes, there are also flight schools that conduct specialized training in other types of aircraft or operations. For example, helicopter pilots, glider pilots, pilots involved in agricultural operations, and seaplane pilots are required to receive appropriate ground and flight training for the type of operation and aircraft they pilot. Some large flight schools conduct these types of training in addition to more traditional airplane pilot training, whereas other schools choose to specialize in a niche market.


  • Phillips, Wayne. “A Wealth of Options: Choosing Your Educational Opportunities.” AOPA Flight Training Magazine (December, 2000). An article examining the flight school options available to those who are interested in pursuing a career as a pilot. In addition, this magazine is a source of continuing information regarding flight schools and flight training.
  • University Aviation Association. Collegiate Aviation Guide. Auburn, Ala.: University Aviation Association, 1999. This publication is a directory of 119 institutions offering degree programs in aviation.
  • Willits, Pat, ed. “Discovering Aviation.” In Private Pilot Manual. Englewood, Colo.: Jeppesen Sanderson, 2000. This chapter provides basic information regarding the role of a flight school in obtaining a Private Pilot Certificate.

Federal Aviation Administration

Military flight

Pilots and copilots

Training and education