I started the ATP program on June 5th and lasted five weeks before deciding it wasn’t for me. This is a review of my time at the Mesa Gateway location. I hope it helps you decide if ATP is right for you.
About me: I’m 40 years old and this was to be a second career for me after being a public school teacher for 16 years. I have a master’s degree in education from a large state university. I have a wife and kids, and we own our house here in the Phoenix area - about 30 miles from the facility at the Mesa-Gateway airport. My wife is also a teacher so her income isn’t enough to support a family. I took out a loan with Sallie Mae including extra money for living expenses. I passed the PPL written exam before starting. ATP encourages students to get the written tests done before starting but there’s time built into the program for the tests. It might be easier for some to do them ahead of time, but I found it difficult to study for the PPL exam without any context and studying with the Sporty’s app took a long time. Your results may vary.
The facility was nice and clean, as were the planes. It was busy as it is class D controlled airspace under a class B shelf from the nearby Phoenix airport. I heard a lot of chatter on the radio and there was more traffic than most training airports. I flew Cessnas with glass cockpits and ended up with 22 hours of flight time. I thought the maintenance situation was pretty good. I liked my primary instructor as well as my lead instructor. They were thorough and they both genuinely seemed to care about my progress. I had assumed they’d just be there to log hours but they knew they could focus on the instruction and the hours would come. They were also just good dudes in general. That said, the place did have a bit of a frat boy vibe. The official ATP dress code is to look professional, but that wasn’t my experience. The facility has a lot of college age boys wearing shorts with sneakers, silly socks, and funny looking mustaches. I wore my ATP polo with brown shoes and khaki pants every day and I looked out of place.
The hardest part for me was the schedule. We had to fly early to get the smoothest air. Also, the planes simply won’t function properly when it’s too hot. In Arizona, it’s hot well before lunch time. Takeoffs were before sunrise at 4:15 or so, which meant I was preflighting at 3:30. I’d wake up at 2:00, get ready, and drive to the airport. The simulators were usually in use during the day after my flights, and two of them were broken the entire time I was there. I found that I had to arrive in the middle of the night to use them, so I started to show up at midnight or 1:00. I’d practice in the sim for a few hours before flights and that was helpful, but nothing compares to the actual plane. Also, I never fully understood how to operate the sims on my own and with nobody else around, I couldn’t ask. I spent a few early mornings doing nothing more than trying and failing to get the machines up and running which was frustrating.
Most of the instructors seemed tired and overworked. They were 10-15 years younger than I am so that was concerning. I had a lot more energy when I was 25 than I do now. They also had a hard time getting flight time since there were so many instructors. My lead instructor didn’t have much faith in the pilot shortage being a thing in a few years. Pilots with 1500 hours today are picking their spots, but he thought the airlines would likely be much more selective by the time I got to my hours. He could be wrong, but that’s a gamble with a family. There are differing views on that of course, and none of us have a crystal ball.
ATP’s business model is exactly that: a business. Students are treated as interns from day one. I did pretty well with most aspects of flying and the book work wasn’t a problem, but I needed more time with landings. I asked for more time to practice and I offered to pay extra but I was denied. I understand why ATP does it this way and I don’t necessarily disagree with it, but it was a deal breaker for me. I was struggling in this one area and I couldn’t really catch up. I might have done better if I had been getting better sleep but I’ll never know. My instructors told me I could probably be successful at a different school and then go on to a decent career as a pilot, but that would take more time and I don’t have it at my age. My family can’t go without an income for that long. It’s also possible I could spend more time and money just to find out I don’t have what it takes. That’s a big risk with a family. It’s not like going to law school or something. A $100k law degree or an MBA might be attractive to employers in many fields, but nobody outside aviation cares much about a CFI certificate.
I’d advise anyone starting out to consider getting a PPL first and make sure it’s what you want before starting at ATP. I took the advice of some of the mentor pilots on this forum and jumped right in because the airlines work on seniority. That’s true, but if it doesn’t work out you’ll have spent several thousand dollars for nothing. Your call. All things considered, I’m glad I took a shot to see what it was all about. I won’t be 60 years old and wonder what could have been. I always wanted to fly airplanes and it’s honestly not all that exciting to me. It’s checklists and procedures - nothing like Top Gun or anything. I didn’t love flying even though I thought I would. It turns out I just wanted the fat paychecks we hear about in the news. That was surprising to me.
I hope this review helps you decide if ATP is right for you. It wasn’t for me, but I can see why it would be good for others. Thanks for reading.