Classrooms for Edinboro University of Pennsylvania student Brandon Morton include cockpits and a flight simulator.
Morton, 19, of Guys Mills, is one of the first students in the university's aeronautical science program launched this past fall. The two-year program includes traditional classes at Edinboro's Porreco College and flight and flight-related instruction at North Coast Flight School at Erie International Airport. Graduates will not only earn an associate degree but also the licenses and certifications required to work as a commercial pilot.
"I grew up in a family of pilots," Morton said. "My dad was a pilot for Lord Corp. My grandfather had his own grass runway strip and a couple of planes.
"There's absolutely nothing I'd rather do," he said of flying.
Nine students enrolled in the new program during fall semester. Four more joined this semester. Flight school owner and President Greg Hayes expects at least 30 students in fall 2017 and many more in subsequent years.
The attraction: a growing national demand for commercial pilots. A nationwide pilot shortage is expected to reach 15,000 available jobs by 2026, according to Bloomberg, citing a study by the University of North Dakota aviation department. Fueling the shortage: increasing numbers of pilots reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65 and fewer pilots coming into the ranks from the military.
New pilots can pick and choose from job offers, Hayes said.
"I don't know of another program where you go to college and are guaranteed a job," he said. "It's that simple. This program guarantees you not just a job but a lifetime career."
Graduates of the Edinboro-North Coast Flight School program will be qualified to work as corporate and cargo pilots or flight instructors. Those planning to work as airline pilots will require additional flight hours.
Morton plans to log those hours in the Air Force. He already has enlisted and will start serving after graduation.
"Hopefully I'll move on to fly for an airline or fly cargo," he said.
Classmate Bryan Plucknett, 19, of Springfield Township, also hopes to be an airline pilot and is considering working as a flight instructor after graduation to log more flight time.
"I've always liked planes. Starting between my junior and senior year of high school, I went to Aero Camp (at North Coast Flight School), really liked it and figured I'd keep going," he said.
He considered enrolling in a four-year aviation school.
"It would have been way more expensive," Plucknett said. "This was the better way to go."
Total cost of the Porreco College degree program is about $60,000, including about $17,390 for Porreco College tuition plus flight-training costs.
The associate degree program requires about 30 credits in computer, math, English, ethics and science courses at the Porreco College in addition to flight training, and qualifies students for financial aid.
"It's one of the main advantages of having the associate degree program," said Korey Kilburn, associate professor of math and computer science at Edinboro, and one of the creators of the new aeronautical science program. "Before that if you wanted to learn to fly, you probably had to take out a personal loan."
The aeronautical science program also offers instruction in economics.
"These students will be able to fly for FedEx or UPS but might also want to start their own charter flights," Kilburn said. "We're trying to give them a background not only in flying, but in business."
A pilot himself, Kilburn learned to fly while working toward his master's degree at Miami University of Ohio.
"Another nice thing about (the Edinboro) program is that students can decide if they want to move on (academically) but will still have their pilot licenses and instrument rating and be able to be employed," he said.
And earn a good salary. Starting annual salary for a commercial pilot as demand increases is $60,000 to $70,000, Hayes said.
Edinboro's aeronautical science students are climbing toward those jobs. Some have already logged more than 50 hours of flight training, including solo flights.
"It was amazing," Morton said of flying solo for the first time. "I had a blast doing it."
Not everyone was so thrilled about the first solo flights, at least until they were landed.
"I didn't tell my mother that I was going up by myself for the first time," Plucknett said. "I waited until I came down."
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