Forward: My friend Howard Nock has started and operated several flight schools over the years. I asked him to write this article providing the general steps on starting your own flight school business. His experience and insight into the flight school industry is helpful for people thinking about starting their own flight school. If you are an instructor or operator, I welcome your comments at the end of this post.
Certification: Part 61 or 141
First you should think about where you want to go with this flight school. Is it just for fun in your spare time or will it be a full time endeavor? Either way, you want to operate your school in a professional manner whether you have two or two hundred students.
I think that most schools start out part 61 and evolve to become an FAA approved 141 operation. A good first step is to contact Jeppesen Sanderson at jeppesen.com or call 800-621-5377. Speak to someone in the education division and order one of the private pilot 141 kits. This kit contains all the information needed to complete a private course including a very good FAA approved syllabus which can easily be used at a later time for the 141 conversion. They also have other options such as online training which is good for the younger computer age individuals. You will find that Jepp also have the same kits for instrument/commercial when you are ready for that training.
This is a very critical step. The profit margins in the flight school business are very thin. You want to find an airport that is not offering flight instruction and is willing to offer adequate space for the opportunity to provide this service to their community. It is a good idea to sell yourself to the FBO with the notion that if you do well, their fuel and aircraft maintenance business will flourish with your success. Make sure that you have enough private space for your instructors and students. You will need an office for operations as well as at least one training room.
I think it is imperative to start the school owning your first plane. I know that many aircraft owners are willing to lease back aircraft and that this opportunity is hard to pass up, but I highly recommend doing the lease back only if you have your own. Some owners become disenchanted when their airplane is flying too much or a plastic trim piece gets broken (and it will happen). In a very short time you can be out of business with a lease back situation. I found that a nice mix of ownership and lease works very well.
You need to be consistent with the aircraft you operate. That is to say, stick with the same type whether it is Cessna, Piper etc. If you mix and match too much it will create training difficulties for you students. As you grow, you want all your primary aircraft to be the same. It is good to have the advanced aircraft an easy fit for your students as they upgrade to instrument/commercial training or become renter pilots.
You want to keep it simple at first and not worry about fancy EIFS systems and keeping up with the electronic age. Pilots need to learn good airmanship first. Once mastered, the bells and whistles can be introduced. A good old C150 and C172 are a great place to start. They are reliable and comfortable to fly. Pick up a Trade-A-Plane and start the search.
The insurance companies and their lawyers pretty much dictate what we can and can not do in aviation. We talk about FAA regulations and Part 61 and 91 requirements, but the reality is that the insurance industry can be the most restrictive element. What they will let us do is what determines how we proceed. So, before you purchase that first training airplane you need to contact a reputable aviation insurance agent and look into a good commercial policy based upon the aircraft you are looking to purchase. As a matter of fact, maybe you should call the agent before you start looking and find out what the cost will be for what you think you want to buy. Either way, I have been using the Falcon Insurance Agency in Columbus, Ohio 888-405-1055 for many years for both flight school and corporate insurance. They will be very happy to speak to you regarding your needs.
We live in a computer age so a web site is probably a good place to start. Depending upon your location, a yellow page ad might be a good idea. Even just a listing under aircraft schools might help. Usually, there are not many listings in this category. The best advertising is probably the airport at which you are located. People will come to an airport to seek training and for that reason it is important to make sure that your office is always open with an instructor available to take a prospect for a demo flight. This demo flight is your best resource. Eventually, word of mouth will be your ultimate tool if you run a professional operation.
It is obviously best if you are an instructor pilot starting this business. If not, you need to hire dedicated individuals. There is nothing wrong with using flight instruction to build flight time. However, during this time the pilot instructor should conduct themselves in a professional manner and their students’ needs should come first. You need to have an instructor present at all times for when that potential customer comes through the door for that all important demo flight.
In most cases you can hire an instructor as an independent contractor as long as you are careful about how you use them. If they are being paid to watch the office and not instructing you may have an IRS issue. BE CAREFUL with this!!!!
Finally, all your instructors need to follow the syllabus and program that you provide for them whether it is from Jeppesen or somewhere else. You don’t want any loose cannons doing their own thing. Any one of your instructors should be able to take over for another without the student noticing a difference. You want a seamless and consistent operation.
I believe that flying should always be fun; however, you need to conduct a flight school as a business if you want to survive. Be careful not become to loose about the way you go about your business. You need to have a good lease agreement with you aircraft owners and even more important is to have a good rental agreement in place for your students and renter pilots. These documents don’t have to be 100 pages of legal jargon. Just a couple pages to make sure everyone is aware of the potential seriousness of this business and what your expectations are in matters such as insurance deductibles etc. Unfortunately, I don’t possess copies of these documents any longer; however, they are not rocket science either. Just some good guidelines established in advance of a potential problem. The insurance agent might be able to help with this information.
Building a flight school from scratch is a hard job. At first, to be successful, it will require working seven days a week with twelve to fourteen hours per day and at first, you will probably enjoy every minute of it. There comes a feeling of great satisfaction from starting a business from the ground up and watching it grow. I found that the amount of return from the school was equal to the time invested. At some point however, you will need to step back and take some time off. This operation will become your whole life if you let it and maybe that is a good thing if you don’t currently have a life. You will meet and make great friends with this type of business. Most of us however, do have family and friends outside the airport that we want spend time with and it is important to not become so absorbed that you miss out on that. At some point, you can afford to take a day off and maybe even cut a couple days down to eight hours.
Good luck and remember that flying should be fun.