Rising financial incentives are re-awakening the dream of becoming an airline pilot. Chuck Weirauch spoke with flight school and association executives.

“We are seeing people in the banking and computer industry, programmers, for example, who are trying to get out of those fields. Others are even leaving the medical field because they want to become pilots,” said Chris Erlanson, president of Nashville Flight Training.

“We cannot serve all of the customers that want to come to our school – we definitely are operating with a waiting list,” added Jon Hay, president and CEO of Hillsboro Aero Academy.

Is the tide starting to turn, reflecting a positive trend toward more people becoming interested in a career as a commercial airline pilot? The US Federal Aviation Administration reported 167,804 student pilots as of December 31, 2018, in its Estimated Active Airmen Certificates Held report; that number is up from 149,121 the year before and about 40% higher than the approximately 120,000 for each of the years from 2010 through 2016.

L3 Commercial Aviation Academy in Florida offers instructors hiring bonuses, a flexible work schedule, opportunities to meet with airline recruiters – and does not have a CFI shortage. Image credit: L3.
L3 Commercial Aviation Academy in Florida offers instructors hiring bonuses, a flexible work schedule, opportunities to meet with airline recruiters – and does not have a CFI shortage. Image credit: L3.

Flight Schools at Capacity

To provide some perspective, CAT spoke with flight school owner/operators around the US who provide ab initio and initial training, either for a dedicated pilot career path, a combination of airline pilot training and private license, or just for recreational flying.

According to Nashville Flight Training’s Erlanson, the answer to the trend question is obvious, due to the increasing number of applicants for pilot training to his flight school in the Nashville, Tennessee area. The FAA-approved FAR Part 141 flight school is partnered with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

“The ‘secret’ is out,” Erlanson proclaimed. “People are starting to figure out that flight training for a pilot career is an amazing investment. In the past, the media like Forbes and Money magazine indicated that only a career as a doctor or an attorney paid top dollar. Now people are starting to look at a career as an airline pilot as one of the top draws. It is amazing to see this kind of transformation for our entire industry.”

Nashville Flight Training provides a commercial airline career track, as well as a curriculum for those who just want to earn their private pilot certificate. Currently, 63% of its students are in the commercial airline career track, Erlanson reported. He also stated that his flight school is at full capacity for the airport that Nashville currently uses. There are plans to expand to other locations though.

“Less than two years ago, [the commercial airline track] was less than two percent of our students,” he pointed out, “Now, we have a lot of people who are seeing that this is a career opportunity. Our core audience is about a 25-year-old domestic male.”

Nashville provides a Redbird Cessna 172 AATD (advanced aviation training device), as well as a Precision Control C2 AATD for its students. They also have six Cessna 172 training aircraft, as well as Beechcraft Travel Air and Beechcraft Baron twin-engine airplanes for multi-engine training. “We are trying to spend more time in simulators to help save the customer money, and to improve the efficiency of our training,” Erlanson noted.

Nashville Flight Training’s Precision Flight Controls C2Pro AATD can be configured as single-engine, multi-engine or jet. Image credit: Nashville Flight Training.
Nashville Flight Training’s Precision Flight Controls C2Pro AATD can be configured as single-engine, multi-engine or jet. Image credit: Nashville Flight Training.

“We are right at capacity, looking to expand to different locations, as well as increasing the number of our simulators and training aircraft fleet. As this pilot crisis continues to grow, we are going to see more flight schools,” he predicted.

Robert Luthy, director at L3 Commercial Aviation’s Academy at the Sanford/Orlando International Airport in Florida, also reported that his flight school is at capacity; the airport cannot handle a higher number of training flights.

“When we started here two years ago as L3, the student population was 420 students, all on a professional pilot career path,” Luthy said. “Our capacity is 650 students, and we will be maxed out by the end of the year. Our current ratio is 40 percent domestic and 60 percent international, but we are working toward a 50-50 mix in the near future.”

L3 Academy at Sanford hires the majority of its certified flight instructors (CFIs) internally. While the flight school does not have a shortage of instructors and provides hiring bonuses for CFIs, the school brings in regional airlines every month to hire them. In addition to the student population at Sanford, the L3 Academy staff provide all flight training for Jacksonville University students.

“Our entire focus is to create commercial pilots, so we want them to get those jobs,” Luthy explained. “Ninety-eight percent of our instructors are getting hired to become a commercial pilot.”

L3 recently announced a strategic alliance with Piper Aircraft for 240 training aircraft with Garmin 1000 avionics, touted as the largest airplane order for that manufacturer. Currently the school has a mix of more than 100 Cessna 172s and Seminoles. Simulators include a new Frasca Seminole AATD and a Frasca Cessna 172 AATD, as well as a Diamond DA20 AATD and Redbird AATD as a backup.

“Our main focus is ab initio, but the majority of people that are coming to us are second-career people. People in today’s world are making career changes and deciding to go into aviation because they are seeing the advantages in the massive growth of the industry.”

While Hillsboro Aero Academy’s Hay does not consider his Part 141 flight school to be currently at capacity, they do have a long waiting list of potential students. Headquartered in Hillsboro, Oregon, the Academy has four campuses, with one dedicated to training Chinese students only and another exclusively for helicopter flight training. Hay estimated that 30 to 40% of the Academy’s students are domestic, and that 97% “have some sort of airline career in mind.”

“We cannot serve all of the customers that want to come to our school – we definitely are operating with a waiting list,” Hay told CAT. “People really want to get into this career right now. Normally we have had people who have wanted to fly all their lives, but now we are getting people who are doing so for other reasons. The money is finally getting better, and the value proposition is getting to be a reasonable one. The biggest limiting factor right now is that I can’t get enough resources to grow the business.”

Hillsboro partners with Portland Community College, and that college has a partnership with Embry-Riddle. Students are not necessarily working toward a four-year degree, since airlines are not requiring that level of education at this time.

While Hillsboro Academy is looking to grow, it is difficult to obtain training aircraft to help facilitate that growth, Hay pointed out. The Academy does have a unique training fleet of 45 upgraded and modernized Cessna 152s, though. He also said that the flight school is looking to buy new training devices this year. Currently it employs three Frasca fixed-wing trainers, along with Redbird and Frasca AATDS and two Frasca helicopter trainers.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s new “winged” US$75-million student union on the Daytona Beach, Florida campus.
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s new “winged” US$75-million student union on the Daytona Beach, Florida campus. Image credit: ikon.5 Architects.

Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at Daytona Beach, Florida also focuses only on ab initio training, but that training is integrated into a four-year aeronautical science degree program. The college is also at capacity due to the limitations of the airport they operate from and have been experiencing a major growth in students on a path to a career as an airline pilot.

“Up until about two years ago, our enrollment was pretty steady at about 1,000 students in the Aeronautical Science degree program,” said Dr. Mike Wiggins, Professor and Chair of the ERAU Aeronautical Science Department. “It then jumped up the following year about 150 students. In 2018 we added another 100 to about 1,500 students. So now we are essentially capped at our flight training and at capacity,” Wiggins reported. “In addition, the number who have applied from last Fall to this coming Fall is up over a thousand. So, it looks like people are starting to perceive that becoming an airline pilot is a viable career again.”         

Embry-Riddle recently obtained 11 Diamond DA20 aircraft to expand its training aircraft fleet to 63, mostly Cessna 172s. Although the University has not increased its number of six Frasca Cessna 172 AATDs in its dedicated simulation center, that center is now open seven days a week to meet student training needs. ERAU Daytona Beach also has opened a new Aviation Learning Center that features a number of Elite AATDs so that students can come in any time they want to review and practice their flight skills on their own time, Wiggins said.

The first 26 aircraft from an order for 240 Piper single-engine Archer and twin-engine Seminole trainers (shown) have started arriving at L3’s academies in the US, UK and Portugal. Image credit: L3

No Surprise, But Not Sufficient

That flight schools are increasing their number of students to capacity comes as no surprise to Bob Rockmaker, president of the Flight School Association of North America (FSANA). Many of the organization’s members have been reporting such increases in student enrollments throughout the nation.

“People who are owning and operating flight schools are very busy these days,” Rockmaker noted. “And they should be making money. If they are not making money today, in this climate and environment with the need for pilots, then they probably need to examine their business model. If the economy slows down a bit, they could be in trouble.”

The increasing number of flight schools at capacity is a reminder that the US flight training infrastructure is still not sufficient to meet the growing demand for pilots. Rockmaker also cited other problems, including the difficulty in obtaining enough new training aircraft, delays in getting students scheduled for their FAA Commercial Pilot Practical Test exams because of a shortage of Designated Pilot Examiners, and shortages of CFIs. The latter problem may be starting to resolve itself with the establishment of flight schools that only produce CFIs, Rockmaker suggested.

“The big message here is that the pilot shortage has finally arrived, and we are now seeing that there is an awakening demand for training around the world and in the United States,” Hillsboro’s Hay summarized. “And flight schools are realizing that we are seeing a different customer than those who just love it as a career, something different from what we have been seeing in the past. The demand is here now, and more to come.” 

Published in CAT issue 3/2019