Saturday, March 05, 2016

Star Flight Training: New Roanoke flight school aims to address looming pilot shortage

Jon Beard is a flight instructor and general manager of Star Flight Training, a new flight school at Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport.

Growing up in what he calls “the sticks” near Clifton Forge, Jon Beard thought he was destined for work in a paper mill. Or maybe if he was lucky, he could land a railroad job right out of high school. He didn’t think his family could afford to send him to college. But when he entered William Fleming High School he found a career path he never knew he wanted — flying airplanes.

He earned his private pilot’s license through the high school’s now-defunct aviation elective, and he later attended a professional flight school. Beard, 37, has spent nearly 20 years flying planes and teaching others to do so. He’s done everything from dropping skydivers to piloting regional jets.

But he considers his latest gig one of the most important.

Jon Beard, flight instructor moves a Diamond DA-20 out of the hangar before class instruction on Saturday morning at Star Flight Training.

Beard is the general manager of Star Flight Training, a new flight school that set up shop on Waypoint Drive just past Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport.

“If it ever occurred to you to fly an airplane, we are the people you call,” he said.

The school is owned by Salem resident and aviation enthusiast Danny Kane. It has a fleet of five small planes, dwarfed by the jets that take off next door at the airport. Yet in some aspects, Star Flight Training is just as important as any of the commercial airlines.

The country is facing an unprecedented pilot crunch, according to those in the airline industry. A wave of pilots is expected to retire in the coming years. Meanwhile, training requirements for pilots have increased, meaning there likely will not be enough new pilots to fill the vacancies. Airlines and airports across the country — including in Roanoke — are preparing to have fewer pilots available.

Taylor Moore, 22, of Smith Mountain Lake, taxis during a flight training school preparation instruction class on Saturday morning.

“The smaller communities will feel the brunt of it the worst,” said Roanoke airport executive director Tim Bradshaw. “The larger airlines will be pulling their pilots from the regional aircraft, which we use here.”

This could lead to fewer flights, especially at smaller airports, in the next few years, he said.

The men behind Star Flight Training are keenly aware of the coming pilot shortage and believe there is a demand for the school.

“[Becoming a pilot] is a very viable career right now,” Beard said.

But he will be the first to say, it’s not the easiest career path.

Founding Star Flight

Star Flight Training was created to teach anyone about aviation, even a person who has never stepped foot on a plane.

Kane is a retired Salem businessman and self-described airplane addict. As a boy, he would ride his bike to what is now the Valley View Mall area and watch planes take off. But flying is an expensive, time-consuming hobby, and he didn’t end up earning his pilot’s license until he was in his 50s. Kane, now 59, said the hobby turned into an obsession. He owns nine planes.

He also owns an airplane service and repair shop at the airport, where he has leased land for about five years. He has had small flight schools operating on and off during that time. When his previous instructors left to pursue other interests, he said he did some soul searching about what to do with the space.

“It’s not a very profitable business at all,” he said. But aviation is his passion, he explained, and he believes that having a quality flight school in Roanoke could serve the greater good and fill a niche.

“If we don’t train tomorrow’s pilots, we won’t have anything,” he said.

Sam Jones, 21, of Callaway goes over a visual flight plan to Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport with instructor Barton Smith.

He hired Beard, who had spent many years as an instructor and shared Kane’s vision of what the flight school would be — a top-of-the-line professional training service with modern, technologically advanced aircraft.

It takes at least 40 hours of flying to earn a private pilot’s license, under Federal Aviation Administration rules. Many times, this is achieved in older planes in rural places through small, locally owned schools, according to pilots at Star Flight. There are other flight schools and instructors in the Roanoke and New River valleys, but Kane and Beard said they wanted Star Flight to stand out as a high-end operation with elite services.

To accomplish this, the building that houses the school will undergo a major renovation this year. Kane is also adding a flight simulator, a piece of equipment that is used at many colleges and national flight schools. Beard has about a half-dozen instructors under contract and is hiring three full-time instructors.

Jon Beard, instructor at Star Flight Training, does a maintenance check before going up for a training flight with his student, Taylor Moore, 22, of Smith Moutain Lake.

Beard is also marketing Star Flight. He’s showing up at community events and cultivating a social media network. The flight school opened in early January with only a couple of students. He hopes to have 50 to 70 students on a weekly basis before he hires more people.

“It’s just not on people’s minds to learn to fly,” Beard said. “They don’t realize it’s accessible to anybody.”

Beard is upfront about the cost — getting a pilot’s license is expensive. It costs about $12,000 to get 40 to 55 flying hours and earn a private pilot’s license. To become an instructor with at least 250 hours can set you back about $60,000.

But Beard said it should be seen as an investment, much like a college degree, because of the demand for pilots.

Jon Beard, instructor, meets with his student, Taylor Moore, 22, of Smith Mountain Lake before their Saturday morning lesson.

The pilot crunch

The 2015 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook projects that 558,000 new commercial airline pilots and 609,000 new maintenance technicians will be needed to fly and maintain the world’s fleet over the next 20 years. At least 95,000 pilots will be needed in North America.

“Generally, what we understand is the United States right now does not have the capacity to train the number of pilots we will need in the next few years,” said Jim Molloy, the dean of Liberty University’s aeronautics school.

The school has about 350 students, with more enrolled in online programs. A few years ago, Molloy said it was hard to bring airline recruiters to the school because they weren’t seeking pilots. Now, recruiters visit almost every week.

“I mean, this is unprecedented in the industry,” he said.

Jon Beard, flight instructor and Taylor Moore, 22, flight student, move a Diamond out of the hangar before class instruction on Saturday morning at Star Flight Training.

The pilot shortage is the result of a perfect storm of retirements and heightened certifications from the FAA, he said.

Previously, an airline pilot needed to have at least 250 hours of flying time to be in a commercial pilot’s seat. But in 2009, a regional Colgan Air flight crashed near Buffalo, New York, during a snowstorm as a result of pilot error, killing all 49 people aboard. Their families successfully lobbied Congress for stricter requirements for pilots.

The changes, which took effect in 2013, require every passenger and cargo airline pilot to accumulate at least 1,500 flying hours and additional certifications, with the exception of military pilots and four-year college graduates. Flight school grads at Liberty need at least 1,000 hours of flying time to be able to fly for an airline.

Tyler Moore, 22, of Smith Mountain Lake, works full-time in the heating and air-conditioning industry, but, is paying his way through flight school at Star Flight Training.

Regional airlines, which serve smaller communities but make up about half of the country’s commercial flights, tried unsuccessfully to fight the new rules.

Molloy explained that major airlines — American, Delta, Southwest, FedEx Express and the like — typically do not hire pilots right out of college or flight school. They hire the most experienced pilots and offer the best salaries, often more than $100,000 a year.

Regional airlines, such as Piedmont and SkyWest, tend to hire less experienced pilots. With fewer pilots available, the major airlines predictably will hire away pilots from the smaller airlines.

Jon Beard, flight instructor and Taylor Moore, 22, flight student, move a Diamond DA-20 out of the hangar before class instruction on Saturday morning at Star Flight Training.

Molloy said the typical path in aviation works like this: Students earn their private pilot’s license and become flight instructors at colleges or flight schools. After a few years of instruction, they will typically have enough flight hours to get hired at a regional airline as a first officer, the second pilot in command of a plane. After a few more years, they can become a captain and, after that, possibly land a job at one of the majors.

The average starting salary at a regional airline is $25,000 to $35,000 a year for some newly hired college grads, but the salaries are going up as demand grows, Molloy said.

“After three or four years, you don’t have to eat ramen noodles,” he said.

Star Flight Training has airplanes that offer both new and older instrument panels, so students can learn to operate varying styles of planes.

Several airlines that have visited Liberty have even promised signing bonuses, a rarity 10 years ago.

In addition to the increased flying hours and certifications, airlines are expected to experience a large number of retirements in the next few years. The mandatory age for retirement for airline pilots is 65, and baby boomers, a generation that produced a large number of pilots — many with military training — are hitting that age.

Brad Boettcher, spokesman for the Roanoke airport, said about 40 percent of airline pilots are poised to enter retirement age.

Star Flight offers flight simulation and experience in new planes with the airport’s air traffic control.

“The pilot shortage is a growing concern, especially for airports of our size,” said Bradshaw, the airport’s executive director. He and Boettcher said one likely possibility is a reduction in the number of flights.

For example, if United Airlines currently offers three flights a day on aircraft with more than 100 seats, this may go down to two flights a day on smaller aircraft with fewer seats if there are not as many pilots 

“It just changes that convenience factor,” Boettcher said.

Fewer flights also make it harder for the airport to get more direct flights and maintain lower rates. The more activity at an airport, the easier it is to achieve those things. Star Flight Training also uses the airport’s control tower, giving the airport an added benefit of more activity.

Boettcher said the impact of the looming pilot shortage is already showing. This month, he said he’s seen flight cancellations because of the lack of a crew. In February, Republic Airlines, one of the country’s largest regional carriers, filed for bankruptcy largely because it lacked enough pilots.

The Star Flight Training has five small planes, located in their heated hangar just past Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport.

Flight school benefits

This winter, Bart Smith, the director of the Roanoke Regional Small Business Development Center, met with Star Flight Training officials about getting the business off the ground. It was a special project for Smith, who is a pilot and is now one of Star Flight’s contracted instructors.

He was trained at a mom-and-pop facility in the New River Valley when he was a teenager, but he said a professional school such as Star Flight offers a lot more, including flight simulation and experience in new planes with the airport’s air traffic control.

Beard said he wants students to earn enough hours to be an instructor, which can take about a year. After that, they can teach other clients over several years until they earn the required 1,500 hours and are eligible to fly at an airline. Instructors can make anywhere from $20 to $40 an hour, he said.

That is the plan for Taylor Moore, one of Star Flight’s first students. The 22-year-old flies in his spare time and now can make solo flights, but he is not at the instructor level yet. He said he hopes to fly professionally, possibly as a corporate pilot one day.

His first flight without an instructor was a little scary, but when he let his training kick in, it calmed him down.

“When you can sit back and cruise, it’s pretty nice,” he said.

For many who learn to fly, the excitement of flying an airplane often supersedes professional aspirations, according to the pilots at Star Flight.

Taylor Moore 22, of Smith Mountain Lake is instructed by Jon Beard of Star Flight Training on Saturday morning in a Diamond DA-20. 

“It’s what I call a ‘passion business,’ ” Smith said, adding that sometimes the passion overtakes the business side of it and owners forget the need to make money to operate. But he said Kane, Star Flight’s owner, has managed several businesses and is aware of the demand in flying hours.

Kane said if his children were of a different age, he would encourage them to enter aviation right now. He is willing to open Star Flight to tours just to stir interest in flying.

“There’s going to have to be more places like this to train future pilots,” he said.

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