George Davis grew up in rural north Alabama, but even then he had his eyes on the sky.
“Aviation has been my passion since I was a kid. I used to watch the approach patterns coming into Huntsville all the time,” said Davis, whose Lawrence County home was in the flight path for planes coming into the airport from the west.
That doesn’t mean his head was in the clouds. That love for airplanes led him to the military, where he first became an aircraft maintenance expert, and then a pilot.
Today, Davis is the general manager for Signature Flight Support at Huntsville International Airport, and he and Signature’s parent company, BBA Aviation, are on a mission to find more young people with eyes on the sky.
This month, in fact, Signature and BBA donated $10,000 to the Huntsville non-profit, FlyQuest, which is dedicated to getting young people interested in careers in aviation. It was the second $10,000 donation BBA Aviation has made to FlyQuest in the past three years.
It’s not just a good thing to do for Alabama kids looking for an interesting career, it’s a way to fill a major need in the aviation industry.
Pilots these days are in short supply, and the shortage is about to get serious. Davis said the major airlines are set to lose thousands of pilots to retirement in the next several years. Overall, the number of airline pilots nationwide – more than 800,000 in 1987, according to the Federal Aviation Administration – has dropped by 30 percent over the past three decades.
“That’s a lot of experience walking away all at once” Davis said. “The shortage is there, and the need for pilots is increasing daily.”
The military isn’t turning out the pilots it used to, either. In fact, Davis said, the armed services are experiencing pilot shortages of their own.
Imagine the impact on the U.S. and global economy if we don’t have enough pilots to keep people and cargo criss-crossing the country and the world.
Not only are careers in aviation not being put in front of a majority of school kids today, but the cost of learning to fly can be a real deterrent.
“To go from zero hours to be able to qualify to fly for the airlines, you are looking at anywhere from $75,000 to $80,000,” Davis said.
Enter FlyQuest, which provides young people scholarships to get their start in aviation, not only as pilots, but aircraft maintenance specialists, air traffic controllers, flight attendants, ground crew and numerous other careers.
So FlyQuest, which has been working with schools for several years, is now taking its show on the road.
The group – with donations from Signature Aviation, the Huntsville Airport Authority and others — has souped up an old Greyhound bus and turned it into a mobile aviation classroom that can visit schools across the northern part of the state.
The bus will have flight and air-traffic control simulators, cutaways of aircraft engines and hydraulics and other things to stimulate kids’ interest in the industry, Davis said.
“It’s my passion, along with FlyQuest, to give kids the opportunity to see what’s going on in aviation,” Davis said. “Otherwise, they may never, ever get exposed to it.”