Although some tend to view these paths as being somewhat divergent, with the former sometimes seen as the “high road” while the latter might be thought of by some as the “low road“, in reality they are just two different sets of regulations that work toward the same end. Which is better? Well, it depends… Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, and the first parts of subchapters D and H, address pilot certification and pilot schools, respectively. Part 141 describes the rules for the more formalized, standardized, and credentialed flight schools, and Part 61 details the minimum knowledge and experience needed to earn a pilot certificate.
SO WHICH IS BETTER
First off, regardless of which way you go, all instructors and flight schools, even a mom & pop FBO, must abide by the requirements described in Part 61. In plain English, the only things that distinguish a Part 141 school are less austere facilities and some additional structure in its training curricula. A Part 141 school is just like a Part 61 school that’s jumped through a few more Federal hoops. It may seem like I’ll be jumping back and forth between opposite sides of the fence here, but bear with me; the pieces will all fit together by the time I’m done.
PART 141: THE BIG PICTURE
First, what do you get when you step into that shiny climate-controlled Part 141 classroom? What do all those hoops get you, the student pilot and paying customer? Obviously, such a capital investment costs more money, and like eating in a fancy restaurant, you expect to get what you pay for. When you sign up with a Part 141 operation, to a much greater extent, your every move and step upward on the path to greater knowledge is going to be analyzed, and critiqued. Part 141 schools are going to have somewhat better resources with which to elicit improvements in airmanship from their students. You’ll be following a standardized and well thought-out syllabus, wherein lessons include reviews, practicing current maneuvers, and demonstrations of what is to come. Does it work? Yes, this concept has been working since about 1938 in fact, back when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Civilian Pilot Training Program to help train enough pilots for the coming upheaval of World War II. The CPTP proved to be fully 30 times safer than the comparatively haphazard training of the time. Most students (those that didn’t wash out, at least) passed the initial “private pilot” phase within the allotted 35 hours, whereas non-CPTP students were taking (even then) an average of 75 to 85 hours of flying before earning their wings.
PART 61: THE BIG PICTURE
Many of us live near a city, and there may be a Part 141 school within reach, and you may have your choice, even at a given school, of pursuing training via either path. But if you live where cows outnumber people, well, you may not have many options. What does Part 61 say? In the case of the candidate for a private pilot certificate, Part 61.109 says that you must have logged classroom instruction from an authorized instructor, or else have completed some course of instruction or home study, on your own. There are no numbers for class time, and the home study route in these days of computer wizardry can actually be on a par with the best visualization aids, one-on-one coaching, and animated arm-waving from your most assiduously devoted CFI.
Part 61 dictates a minimum of 40 hours of instruction and solo flight time; at least half of those 40 hours must be dual instruction. The time flown must include three hours of cross-country flight; three hours of night flying with at least 10 takeoffs and landings at night as well as (almost always) a flight of at least 100 nautical miles. Included in that time students must perform three hours of flight by reference to instruments, and three hours of instruction in preparation for the practical test. Solo time has to include at least 10 hours in airplanes (this caters mostly to those cross-training from another aircraft category) five hours of which must be on solo cross-country flights. Students must include three takeoffs and landings to a full stop at an airport with an operating control tower and must also have done a flight of at least 150 nautical miles with one leg having at least 50 nautical miles between takeoff and landing. There are some exceptions for those flying from islands greater than 10 nautical miles from the nearest shoreline (in the very next sub-part, 61.110 in fact).
Part 141 says you’ll be spending 35 hours in a classroom, at the very least. And there are actually very specific requirements for how that classroom is to be appointed; the facilities must meet the approval of the local Flight Standards District Office. These facilities, the instructors, other personnel, aircraft, and other associated training aids and equipment have to pass muster also according to the rules in Part 141. That goes for the airport itself, too; it must be sized and situated so that the training aircraft can perform a gross weight takeoff at a temperature equal to the mean high temperature for the hottest month of the year, with winds no greater than five miles per hour. (And yes, it’s not given in knots, and no, I don’t know why.) Also, takeoffs must clear any obstacles by at least 50 feet. (What this all translates to is that you probably won’t find a Part 141 school at anything other than an airport of significant size.) There must be a pilot briefing area, as well as the means to communicate with the “nearest” Flight Service Station (unless there’s one on the airport).
…Part 141 (flight requirements). As far as flight time goes, the most well-known difference is that if you train under a Part 141 program, you only need a minimum of 35 hours (instead of 40). You still need a minimum of 20 hours of dual instruction, but the five fewer hours comes from the solo flight time, mostly due to the stage checks (like mini-check rides, at specified intervals, but without the same finality), as well as the organized curriculum and controlled environment. (I don’t mean the thermostat, either.) These stage checks are flown with other instructors, recognizing the fact that second opinions can be valuable. One other shortcut allowed under Part 141 is that up to 15% of those 35 hours can be “flown” in a flight training device (20% for a full-blown simulator). As far as the instructors, there may be a bit of potential top-heaviness in this, but each part 141 school must have a chief flight instructor who oversees flight checks, the other CFIs … as well as certifying training records, conducting final flight checks. The chief instructor must have a minimum number of hours as PIC (1000), and at least two years experience. These are just for courses leading to recreational and private pilot certificates, and there are also requirements for assistant chief flight instructors, ground instructors, as well as for linemen and others.
Part 61: All that said, there are a couple of things going for Part 61 operations besides lower overhead. First of all, it’s simply cheaper. But the other one is this: whenever your flight instructor signs your logbook, or when you’re ready for your check ride, your FAA Form 8710-1 (Airman Certificate and/or Rating Application), their own name and not that of their flight school is on the line. (Of course, a CFI’s employer has a vested interest, as well.) My point is that it’s his or her own teaching ability, and not some abstract corporate metric, and there may be more pride involved. Conversely, there can be a significant difference between the letter of the law and reality; there have been a number of Part 141 institutions using shoddy equipment and other resources to extents beyond impropriety, all the way to preposterous. But these kinds of folks usually don’t stay in business for long.
Part 141: Most Part 141 operations of course are on the up-and-up, and although being able to shave a few flight hours isn’t likely to save you much money (since the per-hour costs must realistically recoup the time and money they spent to attain such credentials), the fact is that your own credentials will look better to some prospective employers if they see that you are an alumnus of a Part 141 school. In addition, usually education benefits from the Veteran’s Education Assistance Program under the Montgomery GI Bill apply to training under only Part 141.
THE BOTTOM LINE: If you want to assure yourself of getting the best training (aside from that provided by Uncle Sam, which is in a league of its own, but which also requires more than a sense of commitment), the first thing to consider when you compare flight schools is: the people.
Questions to ask: Are the flight instructors enthusiastic, polite, and professional? What do their graduates have to say? How many do graduate, and how many pass the check ride the first time? A Part 141 school should be able to boast at least eight out of 10. (And if you hope to wear epaulets someday, how many get hired?) Are their aircraft in good shape, and do the facilities appear well managed?
These are the things to think about. Everything that flies may need a paper trail and a pedigree, because safety requires it. However, when it comes to pilots, you might hedge your bets with the Ivy League, but life is what you make it.