Picking a flight school and instructor are two of the most important choices we will ever make in aviation. Learn to fly with a good support system and the experience can be joyful and life-changing. Choosing poorly can mean never becoming a pilot.
With that in mind we asked students around the country what they thought of their flight training experience. What follows are the best flight training providers in the country, as measured by their students. Flight schools of every size, type, and location are featured, as are all types of flight instructors, from independent professionals who teach on the weekend to chief instructors at highly respected and busy schools. These are the winners of AOPA’s fourth annual Flight Training Excellence Awards.
Awards are given in two major categories: flight schools and flight instructors. Students were asked to rate their training provider on a number of different factors, including topics such as use of a syllabus and perception of value. The questions were based directly on AOPA’s research into the ideal flight training experience, which revealed dozens of factors that create a good training program.
The results were tallied and winners were divided into three levels: Honor Roll, Outstanding School or Instructor, and Best Flight School and Flight Instructor in the country. Winners in the Best category scored the highest, Outstanding winners were in the top 20 percent, and Honor Roll schools and instructors scored in the top 30 percent.
In short, these training providers give their students the best chance for success.
On the following pages you’ll find a breakdown of the poll results, including what schools and instructors are collectively doing really well and not so great; profiles of the Best Flight School and Best Flight Instructor; and, finally, a full list of winners.
Congratulations to all the schools and instructors, and be on the lookout for the 2016 poll to be released midyear. —Ian J. Twombly
By Jill W. Tallman
Photography by Chris Rose
Professionalism. Safety. And a dollop of humor.
That’s the recipe Todd Shellnutt has used with scores of pilots since he became a flight instructor in 2001, and it earned him the title of 2015 Best Flight Instructor in AOPA’s fourth annual Flight Training Excellence Awards.
Shellnutt, an independent flight instructor in Columbus, Georgia, surpassed 1,532 nominated CFIs to take the top spot. The top flight schools and instructors were ranked by more than 7,100 pilots who participated in AOPA’s Flight Training Excellence Poll. A complete list of Flight Training Excellence Award winners is on p. 36.
“My favorite part of teaching is when I’m with a student and I see that proverbial light bulb go off,” Shellnutt said. “That’s what pushes me to do better as an instructor, to keep seeing that same result happening over and over again.”
Shellnutt wears a variety of aviation hats—he is a designated pilot examiner for the FAA’s Atlanta Flight Standards District Office and teaches CFI candidates at ATP Flight School’s Atlanta location. He does advanced training as well as familiarization in technically advanced aircraft. A typical week might find him giving spin training to the CFI students, piloting a corporate flight, giving ground school instruction, conducting checkrides, and meeting with a client for some one-on-one ground instruction. Shellnutt loves the diversity.
It’s not the straight-line career path to the airlines he had originally planned. After completing a stint in the U.S. Navy, Shellnutt began flying in 2000. When the airlines stopped hiring pilots after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, he chose to remain a flight instructor and worked at two Georgia flight schools.
Early in his career, Shellnutt promised himself he would not be a time-builder. “I did not want to be that average CFI,” he said. “I wanted to know my trade.”
He was the CFI who would get the “problem” students—and he never failed to help them. He also earned a permanent reputation for knowing the federal aviation regulations inside and out.
“He knows every regulation ever,” said Dr. Michael Gorum, a former student. “I don’t know how, but he’s a savant like that.”
“I am known for that in my region,” Shellnutt said. “And I have an ongoing, never-ending game of Stump the Chump and Stump the CFI with the local FSDO and several CFIs in the local area.”
As chief flight instructor at CSG Aviation, Shellnutt encouraged his students to become involved in the FAA Wings program and held monthly safety seminars. When CSG closed its flight school in 2009, Shellnutt opened Skyline Flight Training at Columbus Airport. The safety seminars continued, drawing pilots who flew or drove from 80 to 90 miles away. (Shellnutt sold the flight school in 2014.)
His approach to student preflights underscores his emphasis on safety. “At my first flight school I had an issue with CFIs that would teach the student how to do the preflight, put the student in auto-
pilot mode for doing all the preflight items for a local flight. They would not be doing a weight and balance, a thorough weather briefing, and notam check. They wouldn’t be reviewing maintenance records. Or maybe they would see something on the preflight and they had a question but…don’t know how to let someone know that something doesn’t look right or feel right.
“That leads to issues like a flight training mission running out of fuel on takeoff and other issues that could be foreseen if the instructor were simply doing his job,” he said.
Shellnutt is quick to add that this issue often stems from a practice of paying an instructor only for the time on the Hobbs meter and not for time spent in pre- and postflight. “I never did that in my flight school,” he said. “When the instructor walked in the door, that’s when the billing started—when he made contact with the client. And they were with the client, and getting a good preflight briefing and a great postflight briefing, and [the client] knew it was well worth it.”
Gorum, a neurosurgeon in Columbus, had heard about Shellnutt’s emphasis on safety from a pilot friend and sought him out for private pilot training. “I told myself, ‘If you’re gonna do it…you want to talk to someone who is committed to safety and is going to make sure you are committed to not doing stupid things.’” Gorum completed private pilot training and most of his instrument training with Shellnutt, who worked around Gorum’s busy schedule.
“He was willing to work early and work late,” Gorum said.
Dr. Mac Molnar, a colleague and flying buddy of Gorum’s with a similarly crowded schedule, said Shellnutt always made himself available when Molnar could find time to fly. “He was right there, he was ready to go flying,” Molnar said. “A couple times when we would fly, he would file IFR so that we could get above the clouds so I could keep training.” Both doctors earned their private certificates within four to five months. They subsequently completed instrument ratings and commercial certificates.
Gorum and Molnar praised Shellnutt’s teaching methods. “He didn’t want to send you for a checkride until you were ready, but he didn’t want your preparation for a private certificate to be a career,” Gorum said.
Both men said Shellnutt welcomes calls and questions.
“I try to keep in touch with all my students, even if it’s just a Christmas or birthday wish,” Shellnutt said. “I let them know I’m still here for them.”
Shellnutt so thoroughly instilled an understanding of the five hazardous attitudes in Molnar that, while on a vacation trip, he recognized a fellow pilot exhibiting those attitudes and called Shellnutt to discuss the situation with him.
“His professionalism as a pilot can’t be matched,” said Joe Lovvorn of Auburn, Alabama. “But as an instructor, he takes that professionalism and, with a great positive attitude and great sense of humor, he makes it an enjoyable experience where you enjoy the lighter side of flying.” Lovvorn trained with Shellnutt while completing a transition course for his 2002 Cirrus SR22, and later for an instrument rating.
Shellnutt would like to knock Rod Machado off his post as aviation’s premier humorist. “He doesn’t know that yet, but he will,” he said. “I find when I’m teaching…it has to be meaningful, and the way I do that is I add humor to it.”
It sounds simple, but if you’ve ever tried to wring levity out of the federal aviation regulations, you know it’s not. But he manages. He’s been known to unleash a pretty good Irish brogue on St. Patrick’s Day when communicating with air traffic controllers, among other things.
“People are so tense when you get in the airplane,” Shellnutt said. “It doesn’t matter what I think—trying to convince someone it’s going to be a good lesson is almost difficult sometimes. That’s why I’m here, to help them and convince them it will be a good lesson.”
Jill W. Tallman is technical editor of Flight Training magazine.