Business folks tired of hassling with airline security, delays and the astronomical costs of last-minute flights are taking action. A record number of people are logging hours in the sky to earn a pilot’s license, and Washington, D.C.-based BE A PILOT, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public about general aviation flying and pilot careers, has targeted June as National Learn-To-Fly Month to promote “Stop Dreaming. Start Flying.”
Since 1997, more than 175,000 people have registered for the BE A PILOT Introductory Flying Certificate, many of them joining the nearly 70,000 Americans who begin flying each year. For $49, potential pilots can take an introductory half-hour lesson that allows them to handle the controls from taxi to takeoff and landing under the watchful supervision of a FAA-licensed fight instructor.
“Corporate air travel is growing,” said Harold Spillars, spokesperson for Douglas Aviation in Olive Branch. “More corporate people buying their aircraft have learned that if you travel within a 500 to 600 mile range, it’s the way to go.”
Even though the program is promoted heavily in June, the $49 introductory offer is good anytime and can be accessed via www.beapilot.com. However, students taking lessons by July 31 will receive a free pilot’s logbook from BE A PILOT. “If you begin flight training during June National Learn To Fly Month, you could easily earn your private pilot license in time for the December 17th centennial celebration of the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903,” said Spillars.
The FAA requires a minimum of 40 flight hours to earn a private pilot license, but the national average is 60 to 75 hours. Applicants should be at least 17 years of age, know English and must have a minimum of 20 hours of flight instruction and 10 hours of solo experience including five hours of cross-country flight time.
“The average cost of a private pilot license is between $4,500 and $5,500 and that includes airplane rental, instructor fees and other fees,” said Jerry Eichelberger, flight instructor for Twin City Aviation at Hawkins Field in Jackson. “For instance, you’ll pay about $70 for a medical exam. You have to have a written test, which costs about $75. The check ride, when you go to the FAA examiner’s to get your license, averages about $250.”
Of the 50 or so new students that sign up every year at Twin City Aviation, one of three participating flight schools in Jackson, and the more than 100 enrolled annually at Douglas Aviation, a larger percentage of students are middle-aged.
“About half my students are 35 or older,” said Eichelberger. “This scenario is very common: a businessman took flying lessons in his early 20s, got married and had kids and put flying on the shelf until he was in a better financial position to finish what he started. Many others have had a desire to fly their whole lives but for whatever reason never did it. Now that they’re getting to a point in their lives where it’s now-or-never.”
Some people enroll in flight school because they want a career change, said Spillars. “Right now, regional airlines like Northwest Airlink are hiring about 20 pilots a month,” he said. “They operate less expensively than the larger airlines and don’t pay their pilots as much, about $30,000 to start. It’s a good way for new pilots to get more flight time.”
Because the FAA has a mandatory age 60-retirement rule for commercial pilots and many major airline pilots are approaching that age, major carriers are hiring pilots from regional carriers, creating openings for regional airline pilots.
A minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time is required to earn a license to fly for “the majors,” and the cost is about $30,000, said Spillars.
“Once students build up enough hours (around 250) to become a flight instructor, they can earn while they build flight time and cut the cost in half,” he said. “I’ve lost flight instructors who stay here long enough to get flight time to go to the regionals. I’m getting them for about a year now and during that year they get about 1,000 hours flight time. We understand when they leave, though, because we train them for better-paying jobs.”
The state’s only four-year aviation degree program — at Delta State University in Cleveland — may cost more, but students are eligible for financial aid and scholarships to offset expenses.
“Our program started in 1982 and last fall we had a total of 138 students in all our programs, with 84 in the flight training major,” said Tommy Sledge, DSU chairman of commercial aviation, who added that the school doesn’t participate in the one-time flight offering sponsored by BE A PILOT “because of insurance liability. Our premium has more than doubled since 9/11. You have to be a student at Delta State and in our program to be covered.”
The pay for commercial airline pilots is enticing, said Eichelberger.
“United 777 starting captains make $300,000 plus a year, but it takes a long time to get there and it’s a job that has a lot of responsibility when you have 300 to 400 peoples’ lives in your hands,” he said.
“You’re always fighting the weather and the airlines can never make anybody happy. The best pilot is the one that can make sensible ‘go-no
But when a young person interested in flying for a living approaches Eichelberger, he doesn’t recommend his flight school.
“I usually refer them to one of the airline programs, like Comair Academy, because the airline runs the school and you go in with no hours and they start building up hours in a step-by-step program,” he said. “It costs around $30,000 to $40,000 but the benefit is that they have a bridge- over program. You might be flying a regional jet with 500 to 600 hours whereas you’ll never get in a jet with less than 3,000 or 4,000 hours. I’ve got a little over 3,000 hours and I don’t think I could go to the airlines right now. They want high time. You have a lot of furloughed pilots that are looking to get those positions and it’s very competitive.”
Most students enrolling in flight school are business folks who simply want to learn to fly a private plane for short flights-and on short notice, said Eichelberger.
“I fly for an air charter company in Jackson and they are very busy, especially on short flights to Houston or Atlanta,” he said. “Many of them don’t know until the last minute when they need to travel and they know that next-day tickets on Delta will eat you up. More corporate people are buying their own planes and learning to fly or hiring us to fly or chartering with us to provide the plane and pilot for their business trips.”
For more information, visit www.beapilot.com or www.douglasaviation.com.
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at email@example.com.