Flight instructor Brian Thompson uses a drawing to explain center of gravity points to Martin Sample, left, during a class of Junior Eagles, a career-oriented program to encourage area youths who have an interest in aviation, at Yakima, Wash.'s McAllister Field, Thursday, March 31, 2016.
YAKIMA, Wash. — Flight instruction is not the most lucrative business for Brian Thompson — the main source of income is his fruit-growing business — but there is enough interest locally that he continues teaching.
“If I was going to make a living just out of this, I’d move to Phoenix or L.A. or Seattle,” said Thompson. Other than Seattle, Arizona and California offer optimal, clear weather conditions for flying.
Local students interested in aviation as a hobby or career can get their start or log more flight hours in Yakima, with each instructor providing their own take on it.
Several flight instructors call McAllister Field on West Washington Avenue their “classroom.” The number of students attending such a classroom is generally small, though, as aviation remains a niche interest.
According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, there are about 100,000 certified flight instructors, or CFIs, in the U.S. — more than 3,600 in this state alone.
Chris Moser, senior manager for the AOPA’s Flight Training Initiative, said independent flight instructors usually come from two mindsets.
“Many have another full-time job and instruct because they enjoy flying and sharing that love with people who want to learn. And then some independent CFIs are either DPEs (designated pilot examiners) or just instructing full time. They typically specialize in a particular aircraft or system and are sought out by local and regional pilots for their expertise.”
Brian Thompson, a flight instructor, teaches the mathematics related to loading aircraft during a Junior Eagles class Thursday, March 31, 2016, in Yakima, Wash.
Thompson said he teaches about 20 students a year through his school, Explore Aviation. They come from all over the world; he said he has three students coming in from Kenya. Most of his students already have logged several flight hours, though, and just want to learn how to fly tailwheel aircraft such as Thompson’s 1946 Stinson and 1940 Piper J3.
Flying is not for everyone, though, as costs discourage some. The Yakima Aero Club, for instance, charges $70 per hour to rent a two-seat Cessna 150 — and that does not include flight training, if needed.
Others purchase their own aircraft, which obviously costs thousands of dollars.
Thompson said he sometimes finds ways to help offset students’ flying expenses. One of his younger students, for instance, helps him on his farm.
He distinguishes his instruction by going old school. Their two 1940s aircraft do not use GPS for navigation. His students, he said, cannot use GPS.
“I do not let my students fly GPS,” he said. “They learn how it was done 75 years ago: with a chronometer and a compass.”
Fellow instructors Rich Bates and John Smith run their own flight instruction business, Yakima Flight Training. The two generally focus on one set of students — Bates deals with continuing students, and Smith teaches new student pilots.
Bates first flew at age 17 almost 30 years ago; it wasn’t until about a decade ago when he began flying on and off.
“It’s a sense of freedom,” he said. “You can go wherever you want, see what you want to see.”
He was a former full-time flight instructor before transitioning into part time last year in order to accommodate his time as a truck driver. Echoing a similar sentiment from Thompson, Bates said interest locally in flight training is low.
Bates could have left flight instructing but remains committed to his on-and-off students who may need teaching.
Smith is retired from the military, and instructing helps put money in his pocket. He said his interest in learning to fly began in 1963, when he jumped out of planes as a paratrooper.
“It doesn’t matter how much (time) you have in the air, you have to always be on your toes,” added Smith, 74.
Most of his students, he said, just want a quick tutorial and “get a look around,” seeing the Yakima Valley from a new perspective. He had about 15 people last year; his oldest was turning 80 and wanted to get checked out to fly.
Smith expects business to pick up soon now that the snow is gone and the typically cloudy seasonal weather begins to clear.
Given the Yakima Valley’s 270-plus days of sunshine, the skies provide a great and stable setting to fly.
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