It’s a clear day in late September. The sun is shining, and a light breeze blows from the east. It’s a bit cramped in the air traffic control tower at the Beaver County Airport.
Four stories above the ground, Evan Johnson, Nathan Tkach and Josh Hunt watch the skies through 360 degrees of tinted windows. They are checking for a Cessna less than 10 miles out from the airport. Johnson is working local control today, guiding local pilots as they return to the airport. He speaks evenly into his headset, giving the incoming pilot clearance to land on the runway. Johnson, 21, of Pleasant Hills, checks the temperature and wind speed. Tkach, 19, of Robinson Township, works flight data.
It’s a quiet day for the crew in the air traffic control tower, with a handful of student pilots preparing for takeoff.
These aren’t seasoned veterans controlling the airspace of Beaver County. They’re fourth-semester students at the Community College of Beaver County about to graduate with an associate degree from the school’s air traffic control program. But along with that degree comes hundreds of hours of hands-on, on-the-job training — a trait that makes CCBC’s program stand out.
Nationally recognized program
For nearly 50 years, CCBC’s aviation program has educated the next generation of pilots. The program expanded to include air traffic control in 1977. In 2013, a third track educating students in operating unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, was added. Aviation is a strength at CCBC, said college President Chris Reber.
“What I think we have is a model program where we are in a facility that is first-rate that provides hands-on instruction with renowned instructors,” Reber said. “These are the ingredients that keep it successful — quality instruction, programs we can do well and programs that lead to successful careers.”
There are 36 aviation Collegiate Training Initiative Programs across the country. Only a fraction offer a drone program. CCBC’s program is the longest continuously running aviation program in the state. The Federal Aviation Administration has accredited the professional pilot program for its high quality, making it the only one of the six colleges and universities in Pennsylvania with professional pilot training to earn that distinction.
Retired Air Force Col. Bill Pinter, dean of the school of aviation sciences, said the accreditation allows students to receive a reduction in the required number of flight hours to complete their training.
“Our program, due to accreditation, is recognized as the best program in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Pinter said. “We have very dynamic programs with a national reputation. What we see is that our students are highly sought after.”
CCBC is the only one of the 36 CTI programs to offer students the chance to train as air traffic controllers in an on-campus tower and take their flight classes — a private pilot’s license is required for the air traffic program.
In fact, a private pilot’s license is required for all students in the aviation program. The college has a partnership with two private flight schools — ACES and Moore Aviation — that operate out of the county airport. CCBC instructors teach the theory, math and history behind flight and, through the flight schools, students put what they’ve learned to practice.
“That’s the classroom, and we’re the labs,” said Brad Cossin, chief pilot at ACES and a 1990 graduate of the CCBC pilot program. “That’s why this program is one of the best in the country.”
Alec Schoedel remembers the first time he considered a career as a professional pilot. He was a senior at Hopewell High School with no idea what he wanted to do. He was offered a “discover ride” at the airport, where he could see what it was like to be a pilot.
Three semesters of college later, he’s working toward commercial flying certification. He recently flew to Rome, N.Y., by himself for the first time — five hours and 250 miles in the sky alone.
“Not many kids can say they go to college and fly,” said Schoedel, 19. “If you don’t take advantage of this program, then you’re crazy.”
Rob Schattauer first heard about CCBC’s program as a high school student living in Slippery Rock. His parents were encouraging him to become an engineer, but after visiting an air show at the Beaver County Airport, he learned he could become a pilot at CCBC.
Now, Schattauer helps teach the next generation of pilots as the chief flight instructor at Moore Aviation. There’s a shortage of pilots in the industry — major airplane manufacturer Boeing projects a need for 95,000 pilots in North America in the next 20 years. Pilots are required to retire at age 65, and since 2013, have been required to have 1,500 hours of flight experience. That’s up from 250, the requirement before the last fatal U.S. passenger airplane crash.
The training isn’t easy, Schattauer said, but it’s worth the time investment.
“Learning to fly is a very steep learning curve,” Schattauer said. “It’s like getting shot at with a fire hose — you get all of the water at once.”
The folks in the air traffic control tower have a bit of a sense of humor. That’s necessary in the business, said Wayne Resetar, air traffic control program coordinator. That’s one of the things he looks for in a successful student.
“We look for somebody who is a little outgoing, that can take constructive criticism real well. People that can think outside of the box a little and have a good sense of humor,” said Resetar, who took the helm of the air traffic control program this fall. “Usually that’s a trademark of someone that ends up being pretty good at air traffic.”
When it’s time for the tape recording activity in the tower to be changed, an alarm sounds in the back of the air traffic control tower. It’s the opening notes of “Danger Zone,” the iconic theme from “Top Gun.”
It’s a stress-relief mechanism, Resetar said. Air traffic control can be a stressful business, he said, and the ribbing and jokes are a relaxation mechanism.
“The most challenging part is you want that successful ending to all the things you do,” Resetar said. “Along that journey to get to that successful ending, sometimes things crop up. That’s the challenge, just getting to that end result with the least amount of difficulties, and when they do crop up, having the ability to deal with them because you’re going to get them.”
The students know the job is important, but they need to have some fun with it, said Pete Kirkpatrick, a supervisor at the tower. They’ll be in the field for only a finite number of years — the FAA requires mandatory air traffic control retirement at age 56, and the oldest a controller can be when hired is 31.
Ayla King will be much younger when she enters the FAA program in Oklahoma in January 2017. She will graduate from CCBC in December at 19 and will continue to take classes and, she hopes, work in the air traffic control tower. She’s one of more than 40 students to receive a job offer from the FAA this year.
Those interested in becoming a controller have to apply to the FAA, just like any other job. Once their resume and entry test are reviewed, the FAA makes offers to place successful candidates in a training class in Oklahoma City and, if they complete training, one of 315 air traffic control facilities across the country.
In 2014, the FAA changed the requirements, de-emphasizing the completion of programs like CCBC’s. Now the main requirement for a controller job is to have three consecutive years of employment, though a biographical application and aptitude test are required before placement. That has hurt enrollment, Pinter said, but students like King still rise to the top of the program.
“It definitely helped, training here,” said King, of Middlefield, Ohio. “It has a very good reputation.”
King’s father is a captain with United Airlines. She already has a pilot’s license, but after visiting the Cleveland tower, she started considering air traffic control instead.
During her visit, she found that almost all of the controllers were CCBC graduates — and they all had a good recommendation. Now a teaching assistant for third-semester students, King said the program gives students an experience that will help them acclimate to the job.
“It’s good hands-on experience,” she said. “We get to actually run traffic and pretend we’re running traffic out of Pittsburgh (in simulators). Going up to the tower to run ground control and get weather . that’s something a lot of schools don’t have.”
Every day in air traffic control is different, said Tom Hahne, a program graduate and tower instructor at CCBC. That’s part of the appeal.
“Students are actually forced to think about how they’re impacting real airplanes with people inside, and given that, they’re allowed to apply what they’ve learned in a classroom in a real-life setting,” said Hahne, 20, of Beaver Falls. “We see a lot of excitement on a day-to-day basis, having new people on both ends of the microphone.”
Having that control tower on campus is invaluable and one of the things that makes CCBC graduates stand out, Resetar said.
“You could sit in a classroom and lecture all day about how to control airplanes, but when you get to go do it, it’s different,” Resetar said. “There is no substitute for hands-on experience. It’s live. It’s real.
“Our students get that piece of it, where you can’t get that in other places.”