A One-Airplane Flight School?

With a growing demand for flight training, CFIs are exploring opening one-airplane flight schools. We think it’s possible, but not easy.


We are encouraged but cautious when we learn of impending entrepreneurship in the aviation world. We know that the odds of success for startups are not outstanding, but for those who do their homework and find the right niche, they improve. After all, we know that there is money in aviation—we put a lot of it there.

We’ve noted that in spite of downturns in many segments of general aviation, the last year has been good for a lot of flight schools—we are getting reports that many are having their best year in convenient memory. That has also caused us to hear from CFIs who are exploring starting a one-airplane flight school at airports where there is currently no flight training.

The questions we’ve been getting are whether it’s possible to set up and run a single-airplane flight school—along with what pitfalls to expect as well as how to make it a financial success.

As we researched the matter, we found that successful flight schools had some things in common: airplanes in good shape, a syllabus with tracking of student performance, an air of enthusiasm among employees and students, newer or refurbished airplanes that were kept attractive, respect for the customer and pricing that meant corners weren’t being cut on maintenance.

Our conclusion—a one-airplane flight school can work, but the CFI may need other employment to make ends meet.


We’ll talk potential airplane in a moment, but let’s start with debt service on a $100,000 machine. Assuming a 20 percent down payment, the annual payments on a 20-year loan will be $6000 to $7800, we’ll use $7000. We’ll budget $8000 for commercial hull and liability insurance, $20,000 for maintenance—including 100-hour inspections—and $38,400 for fuel, assuming 80 hours a month usage of the airplane (960 hours a year) at eight GPH and five-dollar fuel. Engine overhaul will be needed after just over two years, so we’ll set aside $15,000 for engine and prop overhaul. Hangar and office space prices are kind of a roll of the dice, but we’ll try for a middle ground at $7000 per year—although it might be less at an underserved airport. However, the space available to you may need some investment to make it usable.

We used $60,000 for salary for a CFI making this a full-time business. That’s probably light if the person wants to keep doing it as a profession, but the numbers were really starting to add up.

We probably missed incidentals and we didn’t figure in health insurance, but that still put us in the $155,000 per year ballpark. That means averaging about $161.50 per hour of income per hour of usage of the airplane to cover the expected costs. It should help that a healthy percentage of the flight time of the airplane will include dual instruction, for which we think the CFI’s time is worth at least $75 per hour.

The CFI is going to be incredibly busy handling everything involved in the business and we doubt whether it can be done without at least a part-time employee or two.

If we drop aircraft usage by half, to 40 hours per month, the maintenance numbers drop by something less than half, overhaul numbers by half and fuel by half. The fixed costs of insurance, office and hangar space, payroll and debt service stay the same. The total comes down to approximately $120,000. At 480 hours for the year on the airplane, it has to generate $250 per hour. We think that’s going to be challenging, although assuming the airplane is a TAA, concentrating on marketing for specialized training that involves a high percentage of dual instruction and charging what an experienced, professional instructor is worth, it’s not impossible.

At 40 hours a month on the airplane, it also means that the single CFI has a fighting chance of running the business single-handedly without burning out.


While we think that the Cessna 150 is the best trainer ever made, we do not think it has the overall capabilities required by a single-airplane flight school.

Naturally, when someone decides to start a single-airplane flight school the discussion regarding the appropriate airplane can go on without end. Our consideration was for an airplane that can be flown by almost any pilot, is easy to maintain/repair and can be used for special mission training that can draw a clientele beyond people interested locally. We ruled out all two-place airplanes because of weight, range and lack of the overall utility needed for a flight school where the airplane has to be nearly everything for everybody.

In the four-place world we think that the Piper Warrior and Archer as well as the Diamond DA40 could be successful.

In our opinion, the Cessna 172 is the kind of utility infielder airplane that would be the best choice for a single-airplane flight school.

After running a lot of numbers, our recommendation is the Cessna 172 because it’s the airplane that everybody flies without too much difficulty, every maintenance tech on the planet has probably worked on one, parts are easy to get, there is a range of powerplants available to suit the needs of the locale and it has two doors for emergency egress.

If the location is right, a 172 is tough enough and realistic for backcountry training.

We recommend against selecting a tailwheel airplane. While we think a self-respecting flight school should offer tailwheel instruction, we have consistently observed that those are the airplanes most likely to be wrecked by renters and that have the least demand. They sit while the 172s fly.

If your school is going to be a “no-solo” school for specialized training, a tailwheel airplane is fine. Your challenge will be to generate adequate demand to make it pay. We have seen it done successfully in a number of instances, particularly with aerobatic and backcountry instruction.


It’s our firm opinion that the airplane should meet the criteria of a Technically Advanced Airplane (TAA) by the time it goes on the line. That means either buying one with the required electronic primary flight display, electronic multi-function display with moving map and integrated, two-axis autopilot or having the boxes installed to bring a non-TAA airplane into compliance.

We think that it is essential to be able to offer TAA training for a single-airplane flight school to be successful. It allows commercial students to do all of their training in the airplane, a big plus, and it is perfect for instrument students. We have observed a market for dedicated glass cockpit or Garmin G1000 training courses. Offering a flat-rate glass transition course can potentially bring in customers who are considering buying a TAA or want to get into flying glass in a total immersion manner. We also think that flat-rate courses can be more lucrative to schools than by-the-hour training.


Shop time is a reality for any training airplane. Being able to get unscheduled maintenance done on short notice and minimize down-time for scheduled maintenance may mean the difference from a bottom line that is black or red.

Any extended downtime on the airplane will be a killer. That means you will have to find a way to get scheduled and unscheduled maintenance performed quickly. Because the airplane is being used for hire, it must have 100-hour inspections, which are essentially the same as an annual inspection. With nothing wrong, it should not take more than two days for one technician to carry out. A problem at underserved airports is finding maintenance. That problem has to be solved before the airplane goes on the line.

Students and renters bend airplanes. You’ll need a Plan B for when a student loses it in a crosswind and causes major damage but not so major that the airplane is totaled (it’s often faster to replace an airplane than repair it). Can you lease something to tide you over if the airplane is down or does it mean shutting down?


Plan on insurance for a training airplane to be three times what you would pay if you were using the airplane for purely personal use. That’s according to Jon Doolittle of Sutton James Optisure Risk Partners, and Aviation Consumer’s insurance editor. He also said that it will probably be impossible to obtain a “smooth” policy. Your “million dollar” policy will be limited to $100,000 per person injured.

Deciding if you can buy enough insurance to meet your needs means you may want to spend some money with an aviation attorney as you set up your business and decide on the appropriate type of business entity it should be.

Rental Agreement

Part of protecting yourself and your school will be putting together a suitable rental agreement that your clients sign and that spells out your and their responsibility. You may also want to require that renters who solo the airplane have renter’s insurance in place (and can prove it to you) before flying without you in the airplane.


We suggest that you have a printed and electronic syllabus for each rating and training course you offer in place prior to starting operations. It allows you to show a prospect precisely what is offered—and expected—in training. Each syllabus should have a companion, computer software progress tracking system to allow you and your student to track where they are during training (with honest progress assessments)—important on many levels including protecting yourself should there later be questions about the training. In addition, the system can generate an alert when a student hasn’t flown in a while so that you can call and suggest they come in for their next lesson. We’re advised that such a system helps increase the likelihood that a student will complete a course—which helps keep your school healthy. Successful students bring in more prospects.


Aircraft scheduling is a drain on your time that you don’t need, so we recommend using aircraft scheduling software such as Flight Circle (www.flightcircle.com) that allows your customers to directly schedule you and the airplane, and you to manage the airplane, its maintenance, your time as an instructor and billing customers.


Keeping records is where a number of small flight schools go off the rails and crater financially. We recommend using a professional payroll service—for less than $30 per month per employee they’ll make sure you get paid, employment taxes get deducted and paid and all things payroll are ready for your accountant—or accounting software—at the appropriate time.

We’ll note that if you do take on a part-time CFI, that because of the nature of the job and standardization in flight instruction, it’s likely that your state will require that the person be an employee rather than an independent contractor. That’s where a payroll service can help you stay in the straight and narrow should an official someone ask you questions about taxes.

The Other Stuff

You’ll need to go through the appropriate training and keep records for Homeland Security as well as comply with the document review and record keeping for domestic and international students. We recommend that you put a system in place that alerts you to comply with the regulations with new students as well as recurrent training that you must take periodically—especially renewing your CFI.

Your airport may have fees and reporting requirements to run a flight school. Make sure that you can understand and comply. Getting sideways with airport management is not in your best interest, even if you are convinced that they are a few bricks shy of a load. If there are unreasonable regulations, don’t open up unless you can get them changed, in writing. We’ve watched airport politics bankrupt operators someone didn’t like or that wouldn’t comply with what we thought were silly regulations.

You might want to consider applying and jumping through the hoops to become a Designated Pilot Examiner (DPE). There is a serious shortage of DPEs. If you become one, you will be doing a good deed for aspiring pilots in your area and adding to the bottom line of your business. You cannot recommend a student and then be the examiner, however. For your single-airplane flight school, you’ll have to comply with the regs that require another CFI evaluate a student that you have trained before endorsing them for a checkride with you.


While potentially precarious, we think that the single-airplane flight school model can work. It will mean long hours and the ability to do absolutely everything in a complex business from marketing to cleaning the bathrooms, but we also think that it has the potential for a career that is rewarding from a personal and financial standpoint.

Shopping For A Trainer: A Top-Dollar Market

Like the rest of the piston-single resale market, good training airplanes are fetching top dollar, even ones that might have lived hard lives on a training line. Upgraded ones that were well cared for in the hands of meticulous private owners sell for even more. Using the most current Winter 2020 Aircraft Bluebook as a starting point, I went shopping to see what money can buy. Let’s start with a Cessna 150—the old standard that somehow survived my own white knuckles during initial training in the early 1980s.

The earliest 150s are from 1959, and powered by 100-HP Continental O-200-A engines with an 1800-hour TBO. The Bluebook suggests an average typical retail price of $14,250 for a 1959 and $21,000 for the last of the 150s—the M model from 1977.

I found a clean 1976 150M advertised on the Controller.com virtual marketplace for a whopping $39,500—more than twice the Bluebook’s suggested retail. This airplane had 3400 hours on the airframe, no damage history and an O-200-A with 630 hours since a major overhaul. ADS-B equipped, the avionics are vintage King with a KX170B navcomm, Narco transponder and older King GPS. Someone might spend $10,000 for a modern transponder and navcomm upgrade, but the airplane should be turnkey. This is no beater—it has wheelpants, new interior panels, new glass and a unique bicentennial limited edition stars and stripes paint scheme.

There were some others listed with high time on the airframe and engine, but plan on a $20,000 hit if you had to overhaul the Continental engine. Still, these airplanes were listed for considerably more than the suggested retail value.

The Piper Cherokee is also a good choice for a trainer, and older PA-28-140 models are worth a look. I spotted a 1976 Cherokee Cruiser for sale on an FBO bulletin board with a $41,500 asking price. This had a 150- HP Lycoming O-320-E2D with 1600 hours since a factory reman (TBO is 2000 hours), a Garmin GNS 430W WAAS GPS navigator, a Garmin GTX 330ES ADS-B transponder, a Garmin G5 electronic attitude display and new windows.

The owner said it was painted five years ago and the interior was spiffed up at the same time. Not a bad airplane, but priced way higher than the suggested Aircraft Bluebook price of $27,000. Obviously the owner was trying to get some money back on the avionics upgrade, which I figure was an initial $18,000 investment. If you paid full asking price, or close to it, and had to swap or overhaul the engine, it could be a $20,000 hit. Imagine being into a 1976 Cherokee 140 for over $60,000.

For something a bit more modern, I looked at the Diamond DA20 market. The earliest two-place DA20-A1 Katanas date back to 1995 (and ran through 2000), and were powered by 81-HP Rotax 912F3 engines before Diamond used the 125-HP Continental IO-240B in 1998.

The average suggested retail for Rotax-powered Katanas is around $28,000, and later mid-2000 model-year DA20-CI Eclipse airplanes have a book value of around $65,000. These are powered by 125-HP Continental IO-240 engines. TBO is 2000 hours, and typical overhaul is around $25,000. I found a Katana with a 100-HP Rotax 912 S3 engine upgrade, older digital radios and traditional round-gauge flight instruments for $45,000. A 2002 DA20-C1 Eclipse with a Garmin GNS 530W was on the market for $200,000—considerably more than the suggested retail of $76,000 as equipped. It had a freshly overhauled Continental IO-240 with factory-new cylinders and 3500 hours on the airframe.

The takeaway is to expect to pay top dollar for even the most basic trainers, especially if they’ve had recent engine overhauls and avionics upgrades and simply look clean. After all, if you want to attract students these are all selling points. On the other hand, after spending all that money it may be tough to hand the keys over to a student for that first solo. Welcome to the flight training business.

—Larry Anglisano

This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Aviation Consumer magazine.

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  1. Please look at it from the student’s perspective rather than the owner/operator. A one-airplane flight school is the worst possible choice for a student because inevitably that plane will be out of service unexpectedly for days and occasionally weeks at a time. Nothing is more deleterious to early, sustained student progress than layoffs. Unless there is certain immediate availability of a back up where all issues… especially insurance… are resolved in advance, just don’t attempt one-airplane-schools or risk turning off legions of new pilots forever.
    The school’s second/backup aircraft does not need to be TAA [PC sims can substitute for that syllabus segment temporarily] or pretty: just there to “keep ’em flying” during any unscheduled loss of #1 as for down for parts or minor ground loop repairs.
    1) other than briefly for the brochure photo, no wheel pants…not on main gear anyway. Access for thorough preflights and quick changes if flat-spotted is more important to students than cosmetics.
    2) shitcan the DA-20 idea. A nice personal cross-country bird @<200hrs/year but a nightmare and hangar queen for flight schools. Hilariously time-consuming preflights with multiple doors and "burping". Needs a ramp wired for Tanis heaters where it's cold and overheats holding for takeoff on calm days in hot climates.
    Disastrously frequent & tedious Rotax scheduled maintenance with constant carb resynchs, prop shimming, etc.
    Finally, if it is on a long cross-country and the intervening weather goes bad, the CFI can't bring it home. Regardless how many instruments you stuff into it it, can never be legal for actual IFR.
    3) I notice you didn't mention Sport Pilot/LSA for startups and as a first step for students to see if they're cut out for this career without a big initial investment. True… at the moment most new SLSA are well over six figures and the legacy aircraft are mostly tail draggers in the low/mid $20,000 range. However, if AOPA, LAMA's Dan Johnson, and UL's Roy Beisswenger had not selfishly thrown so many confounding, greedy, and borderline absurd industry and commercial use requests/demands at the FAA which must be individually reviewed, laughed at, and rejected as part of the MOSAIC process through 2023, by now we would have seen the eligible affordable used aircraft sport pilot fleet exponentially expanded with limits raised to ?2500? gross, 55 knot Vs, 155 knot Vh, and even four seaters OK [perhaps with a restriction to carry only two max] as proposed five years ago in an update to the Aircraft Spruce "Sport Pilot Encyclopedia".
    Y'all POLITELY raise enough hell and the FAA Regulatory Support Division might announce that as a simple sweeping interim waiver at Oshkosh this year or as a stand-alone NPRM with new reg effective JAN 1, 2022.

    • I have a bunch of hours in the DA20, and I almost bought one. I guess your experience is much different due to geography or something.

      The Continental powered planes have two real issues. The lack of IFR, and it’s not a 172. The Rotax planes might as well be LSA and should be eliminated for that reason even though you somehow think an LSA is a good idea in spite of having all the issues of an DA20 while being comparatively poor planes.

      The problem with not being a 172 or other antique spam can is that mechanics treat the engines like they are the same as the antiques which they evolved from. This causes problems unless your man is actually familiar and follows guidance from the factory.

      The advantage of not being a 172 is you can compete as a niche offering, it’s a better experience, it’s several times less likely to crash, and crash types that kill the Cessna and its crew often result in minor injuries for both plane and pilots.

      I’m not a big fan of the single plane idea, but a 20 and 40 fleet in the right market could do just fine.

      • Oh, Eric…
        NEVER said I thought a DA-20 would make a good sport pilot flight school plane, did I?
        I said that without the self-serving interference of AOPA, “Parrot-killer” Johnson, and UL Roy B. by now we would have an immense fleet of affordable sport pilot eligible aircraft to choose from for intro level flight school use .
        I enjoyed flying DA-20s (visibility, responsiveness, fuel efficiency) and even trusted them enough for extended overwater legs, but the practical shortcomings of a DA-20 in flight school use are very real even beyond the hot and cold geographic issues. Both UND and SUNY got rid of theirs as soon as possible once they realized their mistake (which initial acquisition in the wholly corrupt Long Island New York environment unsurprisingly may have been based on purchase kickbacks).
        Have you ever actually done a DA-20 preflight in complete accordance with the Rotax manual instructions? Will take at least three times as long as on a Continental or Lycoming in a Cessna or a Piper.
        Have you ever actually operated a Rotax DA-20 and a 172 in fleet service? The scheduled required downtime OTS will be at least three times that of a continental or Lycoming in a Cessna or a Piper.
        And are you seriously saying maintaining the engine on an “ancient spam can” 172 in commercial service will be more challenging than a water cooled, sensor and circuit wrapped 912? Start with parts count, then compare parts prices. Next compare the number of A&P mechanics in the field familiar with each type, then post your retraction.
        PS Didn’t recent Aviation Consumer analysis by Bertorelli et al convincingly establish the 152/172 lineage as far more crashworthy than any SLSA…or other trainer?
        Anyway, happy flying and thanks for playing.

  2. I would think the inevitable scheduling problems with a single airplane would send many students elsewhere simply due to convenience or lack of.

  3. Rick, great article and very timely. In the past year I have been through these exact challenges. I looked at the underpowered Beech Skipper. (This would be a great trainer with a O-320 vs the O-235). $25,000 would buy any of the ones on the market. Everyone that I looked at was junk. I moved my focus to Cherokees and 172’s in the $50,000 to $80,000 class. This chase netted the same result, junk.

    On to the older SR-20’s. Airplanes were good this time but the $$$ spreadsheet needed life support. Sum-ting- Wong. The SR-20 idea came up short. Yes, pun intended!

    I purchased a Citabria 7GCBC and tried to insure it for flight instruction. I could not get a quote to insure the aircraft for flight instruction in my business name. No one would insure the aircraft for flight instruction/ student pilot solo flight. For those that don’t know me I have thousands of hours giving endorsements and checkouts in taildraggers. My experience didn’t matter as it fell on deaf ears at the insurance companies.

    Avemco was willing to insure the Citabria for flight instruction (and student solo flight) in my personal name and for only $2600! Wow. That was a great quote except I couldn’t afford to take the risk personally at my age.

    In my opinion the tail dragg’n Citabria 7ECA (118hp) is likely the finest all-around primary flight trainer ever built. LeTourneau University switched from 172’s to 7ECA’s years ago with huge success.

    God bless.

    • Ref your 7ECA endorsement. Agreed…at or near sea level and hangared. A relatively docile tail dragger with very good front seat visibility over the nose. Plus it is legal for spins and mild aerobatics allowing upset recovery training.

  4. Useful article but I have a perspective on becoming a DPE.
    First, watch what you ask for. I was designated to give BE-300/350 type rides and now have 18 separate authorizations (Sport pilot through ATP, ASEL/AMEL, initial CFI/MEI/II, MCE, etc…); it’s a huge amount of work just keeping up with regs and requirements.
    – There is a shortage of DPEs in certain areas, usually places with predicable weather and therefore many flight schools. However the FSDO for those areas – or any FSDO, will only appoint to the extent they can supervise. For more DPEs the FSDO needs more ASIs.
    – For many regions, the number of DPEs is adequate, and even sometimes excessive.
    – If you have a flight school and by some miracle get picked up as a DPE, you’ll need one other instructor as a minimum since to examine someone you trained the last 3 hours must be done by someone else than you. Also, you could expect your local FSDO to very closely eyeball your pass/fail rate as regards the students you trained.