Two Colorado colleges on opposite sides of the Rocky Mountains have formed a partnership to help soften the blow of the Federal Aviation Administration’s increased flight-hour requirements for aspiring pilots.
The aviation curricula at Metropolitan State University of Denver and Colorado Northwestern Community College now mirror one another so that students can transfer fluidly between the two institutions, gaining flight training at a reduced cost.
Standing at the intersection of aviation safety, national politics and the rising costs of higher education, this program is designed to get students up in the sky more quickly in order to accumulate the flight hours required to become a commercial pilot.
“The sooner you can gain experience, the sooner your career is started and you can make your way into a mainline carrier where you can finally pay off student loans,” said Kevin Kuhlmann,a Metro professor specializing in FAA standards.
Congress and the FAA — in response to the 2009 Colgan Air plane crash near Buffalo, N.Y., that killed 50 people — increased certification requirements last year to 1,500 hours from 250 for first officers of U.S. passenger and cargo airplanes.
“That was a big change that happened through political pressure,” said Michael McCasky, an airline captain. “What that’s done for us in industry is create a huge barrier to entry for new pilots.”
The new agreement between the schools reduces the required flight hours for its students to 1,250, a reduction that has FAA approval.
The typical student graduates with about 250 commercial flight hours.
Compare that to 1990, when McCasky says the minimum number of flight hours to be a pilot with a major U.S. carrier was 350.
“Now that number is 1,500,” he said. “With a kid now getting out of school, how do they close that gap?”
The graduates build up those hours on their own time — and their own dime — by flying corporate jets, taking jobs as flight instructors or just paying to climb into the cockpit and take to the sky.
Through the agreement, Metro students can now spend semesters or even just summers at Rangely Airport in northwest Colorado taking flight training with CNCC. The students can bunk in on-campus housing at a discounted rate and receive training that is 10 to 15 percent cheaper than a typical flight school.
Chase Peters, a first-year aviation student at Metro, got a jump-start by taking advantage of this new partnership this summer at Rangely Airport.
“I wanted to get it done faster,” Peters said. “Fly in the morning, fish in the afternoon, fly in the evening. It’s a pretty good deal.
This issue touches on the often-debated concern over an impending pilot shortage.
Kuhlmann said “the airlines are hiring again and they are poaching from the regional jet carriers who now can’t backfill” because of a shortage of hours-qualified pilots.
No one knows exactly how these new policies will play out, but McCasky said several changes in the industry are the ripple effect of the new regulation.
“We have this gap of people who come out of school but can’t get hired, but our appetite for transportation isn’t going away,” McCasky said. “So what you will continue to see is a trend toward bigger planes with more people, not smaller planes flying with high frequency.”