Rocky aviation program helps meet growing need for pilots

2014-08-09T09:00:00Z Rocky aviation program helps meet growing need for pilotsBy SUSAN OLP The Billings Gazette

From the time he was 10 years old, Tyler Reed knew he wanted to be an airplane pilot.

It all started when a family friend, a retired airline pilot who owned his own plane, shared his own enthusiasm for flying with Reed.

“It kind of sprouted from there, looking at airplanes, studying them, riding in a flight simulator,” said Reed, 22, a 2014 Rocky Mountain College graduate. “It made me know I wanted to pursue a whole career in aviation.”

Reed’s timing is good. He is joining the aviation industry at a time when it’s facing a pilot shortage, at least on the part of regional airlines. A study released in February by the United States Government Accountability Office said hiring at that level has been a problem.

“As airlines have recently started hiring, nearly all of the regional airlines that GAO interviewed reported difficulties finding sufficient numbers of qualified entry-level first officers,” the report said.

The study further said that “imminent retirements, fewer pilots exiting the military, and new rules increasing the number of flight hours required to become a first officer for an airline, could result in a shortage of qualified airline pilots.”

Dan Hargrove, director of the aviation program at Rocky, agrees that a downsized military is one reason for the fewer number of pilots. He ties the fall of the Iron Curtain and the corresponding decrease of the military to a need for pilots to come from other quarters.

“It’s not coincidental that programs like ours started the same time the Iron Curtain fell in the late ’80s,” Hargrove said. “The airlines started saying the military is not producing enough pilots for the U.S., so they looked to schools like ours to fill in this extremely large gap.”

Rocky’s aviation program started in 1988, with its pilot training outsourced until 2002, when it bought its own aircraft. Today, the department boasts 100 students — about 10 percent of the student body.

About 20 percent of the students major in aviation management and go into management for airports and airlines.

The other 80 percent of the department’s students major in aeronautical science. Those pilots go to the airlines, military, cargo companies, agriculture and corporations.

“They come in here with typically no flight experience and some sort of passion, created by an air show, an uncle or something,” Hargrove said. “And four years later, they have the education and flight training to begin their careers, and they do.”

The most frequent question Hargrove hears from students is whether they’ll get a job.

“We have never had a graduate who wanted to be a professional pilot not become one,” he said. “And right now, airlines are calling me.”

Hargrove acknowledged that becoming a pilot isn’t cheap. In addition to college tuition and fees, aviation students have to pay for all the gas they burn, which can tack on $45,000 to $50,000 in expenses for all of the flight training needed to start a career.

That expense is the same wherever a pilot gets his or her training, he said. But Rocky does have an advantage over some pilot training programs.

About a year ago Congress required the Federal Aviation Administration to change hiring requirements for airline pilots. A pilot now must have a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight experience to get hired by an airline.

That requirement holds true for a flight school that isn’t part of a four-year college program. Some two-year college programs qualify for 1,250 hours.

Students at a four-year program, like Rocky, whose curriculum passes muster, only need to accumulate 1,000 hours of flight experience.

“That’s about a year less, and their paycheck seniority will be about a year faster,” Hargrove said. “Our students get the best deal because they have the best training, nobody does it better than us.”

To back up his statement, Hargrove points out that for the past five years, Rocky has been accredited through the Aviation Accreditation Board International, which grants accreditation to college aviation programs. Rocky is one of 27 schools to attain that.

When airline companies call Hargrove to inquire about potential pilots, their first question is whether Rocky has AABI accreditation.

“It’s shorthand for excellence,” he said. “It keeps us relevant. It keeps us on our toes. It keeps us following best practices.”

Rocky is also one of a handful of college aviation programs this past year that began working with the FAA on a program called Safety Management Systems, a new approach to aviation safety.

“It’s the system for how we do safety that keeps it more than just being words on a wall,” Hargrove said. “It becomes part of your culture.”

Students in the aviation program tend to be traditional college age, although there are also a high number of military vets in their mid-20s. The No. 1 employer of grads out of the program is Sky West Airlines, Hargrove said.

In April, Rocky signed an agreement with SkyWest for what’s called the SkyWest Pilot Cadet program. More recently, it signed a similar agreement with Cape Air.

Students who are flight instructors for the college are eligible to apply to the SkyWest program. They go down to the airlines’ Utah headquarters for company orientation, and then they are mentored by SkyWest pilots.

Once they have the required hours of flight experience and have successfully complete the program, they have a guaranteed interview as a first officer.

Hazel Sainsbury, a spokeswoman for SkyWest calls the program a “win-win” for the airline and for Rocky. The agreement allows the airline the opportunity to help shape the college’s curriculum, which produces the highest caliber of pilots for SkyWest, she said.

“The benefit for the schools is the affiliation they have with SkyWest and the access they have in our valuable input from a successful airline,” she said. “It’s mutually beneficial.”

Reed, a flight instructor for Rocky, has completed 650 of his required 1,000 hours. He is one of first six students admitted to the pilot cadet program, and his goal is the finish up by next March.

Reed, who graduated in 2010 from Grass Range High School, chose Rocky for its smallness and because he clicked with everyone he met in the aviation program.

“The whole four years I was there, I always felt I was at home,” he said. “I never felt like I made a bad choice.”

He sees the cadet program as a way to keep him excited and motivated on the last stretch of his training. He is looking forward to heading to Utah, probably in September, for the orientation and the chance to work with a mentor.

“It gives you a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Reed stays in touch with other aviation graduates who already are working as professional pilots.

“I hear what a blast they’re having and I can’t wait,” he said. “I wish I could do it tomorrow.”

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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