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The Decision: Vocational School or College?

Part One

by Tim Genc

If you’ve started doing your research into earning your professional pilot credentials, no doubt you’ve discovered that there are a few different paths you can pursue to complete your objective. In the civilian world, these two choices are either a vocational flight school or a college/university aviation degree program.

A vocational flight school is a private company that provides training for people to learn to fly. Some are career specific with set schedules and programs, some are for aspiring pilots of both a recreational and professional nature and allow you to pick your schedules. Each vocational school has pros and cons, benefits and features to consider. Just like all aspects of aviation, there is no right or wrong way to enter the industry and/or get the training you need. Your education needs to be as unique as you, your personal situation and needs.

We can further break vocational flight schools down into fixed-base operators and professional flight schools. A fixed-base operator (FBO) is often like the WalMart or general store of aviation; they do a little of everything. They fix aircraft, store aircraft, fuel them, sell them, rent them and teach you to fly them. While these are all great services that can prove useful as you continue through your aviation journey, the diversion of attention into so many facets normally means your training might take longer, due to their lack of ability to train you on a full-time basis. They are neither setup nor equipped to be able to handle that kind of routine.

Where the FBO is an aviation jack-of-all-trades, a professional flight school is just the opposite: they are a specialist. They just teach people to fly. They might rent their aircraft to their students as part of the time-building required by the FAA, but that’s about as far as they venture out. Professional flight schools are able to accommodate a much more aggressive training schedule as their resources are solely available for that purpose. If one’s schedule and budget allow, they can train a pilot for eight hours a day, seven days a week. Because these types of schools aren’t doing anything else to bring in revenue, unlike their FBO counterparts, you will likely be paying more per hour for your training. That said, your training will likely be more efficient and able to be completed in a relatively short period of time.

The aviation college university option provides you with two things: a college degree and your flight certificates and ratings. Our Aviation College Liaison, Dr. M.A (Mike) Schukert, summarizes it best in the following passage.

The collegiate aviation option typically leads to an associate or baccalaureate degree, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Commercial Pilot Certificate, and an instrument and/or multi-engine rating. Graduation requirements at a number of the nation's 100-plus pro-pilot degree-sponsoring institutions of higher learning (IHLs) also include one or more Certificated FIight Instructor (CFI) credentials. Virtually all collegiate aviation degree programs include a comprehensive general studies curriculum; and, if a four-year institution, a non-aviation-focused academic minor requirement.

Some of these college aviation programs are further accredited by the FAA to provide specialized education that allows you to become eligible for your first airline job at one third less the hours. Other college aviation programs – while still providing the degree and certificates – do so without this benefit. They aren’t better or worse, just different.

So, which option is best? More appropriately, which option is right for you? Again, there is no such thing as “one-size-fits-all” flight training. The path that’s best for you is the path that takes all of your needs into account and delivers a program that suits you. To further break down some of the pros and cons of each path, we’re going to delve into three areas where each medium of aviation education can differ dramatically from the other: the college degree, financing and time frame. Ultimately, the choice has got to be yours.

The College Degree. A small handful of the major airlines still require (or greatly prefer) a Bachelor's degree, but it doesn’t have to be in aviation to meet their requirement. Ten years ago, I would’ve told anyone who would listen that, when it comes to a flying job, a degree in aviation gets you nothing more than a degree in business will. We would encourage students to not put all their eggs in one basket, and to branch out with another interest or passion as their degree. Life can happen to pilots and having a back-up plan is never a bad idea. The Restricted ATP rules introduced in 2013 added a fly to that ointment. There are now a large number of R-ATP approved colleges in the US; in fact, over half of the states have two or more of these approved colleges. What these special colleges provide is that graduating with a Bachelors in an aviation flight program from one of these schools means that you can qualify to get your Airline Transport Pilot certificate with only 1000 hours of total time, as opposed to the 1500 hours normally required. Getting an Associates from one of these approved colleges – or a Bachelors in a closely aviation-related discipline – means you can qualify for that ATP at only 1250 hours. The ATP requirements are necessary for your first real flying job with an airline, and the hours can be a prerequisite for charter, (also called Part 135), companies. It is when your professional aviation career really starts.

Does this mean the only way to get your flight credentials and a college degree is to go to an approved aviation college? No. Far from it. Consider the following other options.

·   Go to a good college, major in another discipline and do your aviation training on the side, whether through the college or another school. Yes, this would mean that you will have to go all the way to 1500 hours to earn your ATP, but let’s do some math. A good flight instructor job to build your time should be able to get you 50-100 hours of flying/month. This means that the difference between needing to get to 1500 or 1000 hours is 5-10 months of teaching. So, ask yourself: is 5-10 more months in the trenches worth the safety net of having an alternate career just in case?

·   Get all of your flight education at a vocational flight school. If you find a full-time training program that can train you as aggressively as you want, the training for your Private through Flight Instructor certificates can be completed in as little as six months. You can then start aggressively building your flight time toward the minimum requirements, allowing you to reach ATP minimums in 12-18 months. As seniority is everything in aviation, this allows you to reach your goal much faster than the college route. During the time that you’re time-building, or while building your airline experience with a regional carrier or 135/charter operation, you can either attend college part-time or on the side. Thomas Edison College on the east coast works with the Air Line Pilots Association, one of the primary pilot unions, to give credit for previous flight education and construct a program utilizing online learning to complete the requirements for a Bachelor's degree before a pilot reaches the required hours for the airlines. You will get the degree that you need, you’re just kicking that can down the road a bit while you build valuable hours and experience.

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