By Paula J Owen
FITCHBURG — Experts say the airline industry will soon face a crunch from a lack of experienced pilots.
Charley J. Valera, who has owned the flight school at Fitchburg Municipal Airport for the past year, said the anticipated demand has encouraged him to keep the school open.
Mr. Valera took over the flight school, FCA Flight Center, after one of his partners, Richard G. Sahldeck, died. Up to that point, Mr. Valera had been handling marketing for the school.
After a year of struggling with the decision to keep it open, Mr. Valera said he is now determined to train the future generation of airline pilots.
The military is not training as many pilots as it once was, he said, and many airline pilots trained in the military are approaching retirement.
“Who’s going to fill their shoes, and where are they going to get them from?” Mr. Valera asked. “With UAVs (unmanned air vehicles) and drones flown from central headquarters remotely, there are a lot less aircraft needed than there ever was and the military doesn’t train as many pilots as they did. Almost all airline pilots are ex-military, because the only way to accumulate the amount of flight hours airlines are looking for is to have someone else pay for it.”
But, he said, commercial airlines are going to have to rely more heavily on small flight schools to provide experienced pilots. Small flight schools are also more cost-effective for pilots-to-be, he said.
“You can go to a flight academy and you might pay $60,000 for your pilot’s license, or you can go to a local flight school and pay $6,000,” Mr. Valera said.
Pilots also can then gain more flight experience through instructing while earning money at the same time, he said.
Flight instructor Richard B. “Bo” Riley of Boylston, who will provide instruction at Mr. Valera’s flight school in the new Cirrus airplane arriving next week, said soon those instructors will be in demand.
“As the need grows for airline pilots when the economy expands again, airlines are going to have to pay them a lot more. It is going to be a supply and demand issue,” Mr. Riley said.
Until airlines offer higher salaries and better working conditions to attract more pilots, there will be a time when the airlines suffer because of a lack of pilots, he said.
He said the pilots who do it the “old-fashioned way,” of coming to a small local airport, taking lessons, getting a pilot’s license, building up experience, obtaining further ratings and then becoming flight instructors to gain more flight time, will be in high demand.
“There needs to be a crunch time before that shift occurs, but it is coming,” he said.
There are more than 5,000 small airports in the country like Fitchburg’s, he said, and only about 30 large airports like Logan, LaGuardia and Atlanta.
“These little airports are where all the grass-roots instructions happen, and where all certified instructors come from,” he said. “They are an important resource often underestimated by the communities in which they operate. Towns and cities that have airports and sometimes operate them have a hard time understanding they act as a conduit and through it the cash flows.”
It is not the $50 landing fee the airport gets that is the benefit, but the business owner who decides to set up shop in Fitchburg because he knows he can fly in from anywhere in the country and land a jet at the airport to check on the 200 people he is now employing, he said.
“That is the magic of small airports,” he said. “It draws in ancillary business that often the city doesn’t recognize.”
Right now, Mr. Valera’s flight school is experiencing a crunch of its own, having more students than instructors, Mr. Valera said.
But, that is a good crunch because the flight school has grown quickly in the last five years, he said.
“We have more students than instructor hours available, and in other parts of the country flight schools have plenty of instructors and not enough students,” Mr. Valera said.