Federal Aviation Administration records are clear on one thing: Active certified pilots have fallen in number from 827,000 in 1984 to 593,000 in 2014.
Aviation experts suggest several causes, including soaring costs to learn to fly, much less to own an airplane, baby boom generation pilots retiring from the airlines, and fewer pilots entering commercial flight careers after finishing their military service.
There’s no consensus on what this means for the industry. While bracing for potential impacts, people who are passionate about aviation are seeking solutions.
In Southwest Florida, that includes a college program.Western Michigan University is in the early stages of shifting some of its flight training to Punta Gorda and its airport.
In Fort Myers, Paragon Flight Training and Evangelical Christian School are thinking even younger. The Page Field-based business and the private school are entering the fourth year of a partnership in aviation education.
Certified pilots with professional experience lead the teaching of this elective program for high school-age freshmen through seniors.
The program isn’t only about piloting: There’s a field trip to Southwest Florida International’s air traffic control tower to observe and to talk with seasoned controllers about their careers.
“We expose students to different aspects of aviation,” said Jeffrey Wolf, partner and chief flight instructor at Paragon Flight Training.
Wolf and ECS Headmaster John Hunte aim to promote not only recreational flying, but development of next-generation aviation leaders.
ECS aviation program graduates who continue their education at the Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., can earn up to 12 credits in advance.
Those attending other universities should at least have a leg up on aviation fundamentals.
“College is so expensive now,” Hunte said. “The more we can give them a real-life experience, the more they’ll know whether they’d like to do this as a career.”
Twenty-four students are enrolled in the ECS program, Hunte said. “We have bigger demand than we can accommodate.”
The ECS students’ initial flight training is on the X-Plane simulator program that mimics aircraft operation, and later on Redbird full-motion flight simulator at Paragon Flight.
In the ECS classroom, Wolf walked students through a pre-flight list, as they watched computer screens, opened simulated aircraft doors and performed various checks with mouse clicks.
“Does everyone see fuel in their tanks?” Wolf asked at one point, adding the nice thing about simulators is that students can pause the action to decide what needs to be done next, and possibly talk things over with the instructor.
Wolf — whose resume includes piloting a ComAir CRJ200 aircraft — noted dryly: “You just can’t pull over when you’re flying an airplane.”.
Beginning students practice simulated flying on a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, a mainstay of general aviation, do the ground school lessons, and go on a “discovery flight” with a certified flying instructor.
By the end of year two, they’ll have taken the Federal Aviation Administration’s written exam for private pilots.
Those in the latter two years fly Paragon’s Redbird simulator, do an aviation internship— and have the option of flight school training, at extra cost and on their own time. That route typically leads to taking and passing the FAA’s pilot check ride exam.
Pilot certification requires real time in a real aircraft: The FAA specifies a minimum of 40 hours, some of which can be in a simulator, according to Wolf.
Because they do so much guided simulator time, Wolf said ECS program graduates will require far fewer hours in flight school than typical rookies, possibly saving thousands of dollars in training costs.
“They know how to do the checklist, how to start the plane, how to communicate with the tower, Wolf said, adding:
“They know a lot of the big-ticket items that would hold another student back.”
Is there a pilot shortage? And, if not now, on the horizon?
Industry officials debated those questions at a panel discussion at a daylong summit in April at the Center for Aviation Studies, Ohio State University.
A 2014 federal study “basically concluded we could not see a (commercial) pilot shortage in the near term,” said Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation policy at the U.S. Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C.. He was quoted in an Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association story on the summit.
Even so, the regional carriers, whose pilots’ pay trends lower than that at the majors, will continue to have difficulty filling pilot slots, Dillingham said in the AOPA report.
General aviation — a prime source of future airline pilots — has been losing 6,000 private pilots per year for the last decade, said George Perry, senior vice president of the AOPA Air Safety Institute.
AOPA is working to reverse this trend, and has organized a Nov. 9 symposium of school principals and aviation program leaders at the Central Florida Aerospace Academy in Lakeland.
The Lakeland school features a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) orientation, with opportunities to build airplanes, earn a pilot’s license, and join a flying club, said Katie Pribyl, AOPA vice president/communications.
The aviation industry, Pribyl said, is facing a shortage “not only in pilots, but in aerospace engineers, air traffic controllers and mechanics.”