Student pilot numbers shrinking; flight schools trying to buck trend

St. Charles, IL

Jordan Kroswek, chief pilot and an instructor at American Flyers flight school at DuPage Airport, flips a switch in the flight simulator and the lesson immediately gets rough for U.S. Army recruiter Sgt. Kierre Tate.

“Because you’re having fun, I’ll mess with you,” Kroswek said Tuesday morning.

As Tate calmly maneuvers through simulated rain and clouds, the runway is in sight. A needle on the unit’s dashboard starts to line up to show Tate where he needs to be, and the ground is in viewing distance.

“2012, you’re clear to land,” Kroswek said.

Tate tilts the controls and the plane touches down. It dips back up once, but finally comes to a controlled stop.

“Not too bad,” Tate said, as he stepped out of the flight simulator.

Randy Weber, American Flyers’ school director since November and a flight instructor with the school since just before Sept. 11, 2001, said simulators help students see every situation; storms, fog, clouds, emergency landings and every airport in the United States.

“Just in case,” Weber said. “There’s a lot of ‘what if’ stuff we try to do.”

That “what if” pays off, according to Tate, 32, who said the smallest malfunction, oversight or lack of preparation can cause an accident. After the simulation, Tate goes out to the school’s hangar and does a thorough check of one of the airplanes.

Take a flier
American Flyers’ school director Randy Weber said a Discovery Flight lesson costs $149 and gives students an introduction to flying with an hour in a simulator and an hour in the air. The American Flyers do a free barbecue and open house at noon on the first Saturday of every month, except next month, when the event will be held Saturday, July 10 because of the Fourth of July holiday.
 

“(You have to check everything) no matter what,” Tate said. “I don’t care how fast you have to get out. This has to be done all the time. ... When you’re up 3,000 or 4,000 feet in the air, you want to make sure your plane is in good condition.”

Dwindling numbers

Tate said flying has been a dream of his ever since he was a child, and he sometimes sits up at night thinking about it.

“This is what I want to do forever,” said Tate, who eventually hopes to become an instructor and commercial pilot.

But there might not be enough people like Tate to go around in a few years. According to a 20-year forecast issued this year by the Federal Aviation Administration, the number of student pilots is expected to dwindle to as few as 69,050 in 2011, down from 2010’s estimate of 72,280 student pilots. To put that number in perspective, there were 93,064 student pilots in 2000. From 2000 to 2009, the number of people learning to be pilots shrunk 2.8 percent.

Mark Siegwart, 22, who trained to become a pilot near his home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and spent a month with the American Flyers at DuPage Airport, came into the American Flyers office Tuesday morning and rang the school’s bell. He recently became a certified flight instructor after a four-year process that included getting his private flight license, his commercial license, and his instrument flight license, which allows him to communicate with airport towers and go out during rough weather.

Having flown to Haiti to help after this year’s earthquake, Siegwart plans to initially put his license to use by teaching missionaries how to fly. However, his father, Martin Siegwart, worries the future might not be very bright for the profession.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do for pilots,” Martin Siegwart said, adding some commercial airlines want to increase the in-flight requirement from 250 hours to 850 hours for obtaining commercial and certified flight instructor licenses. The difference could cost more than $100,000, he said.

Weber said when pilots left the U.S. Air Force, it used to be as simple as taking a test to get your pilot’s license. Now, with the force depleted and Vietnam War and World War II veterans growing older, new pilots face more scrutiny from those who grant licenses.

“They keep making it harder and harder,” Martin Siegwart said. “You get people my age and others out of the workforce, and what are you going to have left?”

Silver lining

Weber agreed there will be a gap once the longtime pilots start to retire, but said American Flyers is going strong with 40 to 50 students and 13 instructors.

Meanwhile, the FAA report projects the number of student pilots will increase in the year 2012, when the forecasted number of pilots is expected to climb back up to 71,400. The projection continues to increase at a rate of about 0.8 percent from 2009 through 2030, when the FAA estimates the United States will be back up to 86,050 student pilots.

“We’re hanging in there,” Weber said of his company.

 Roots
American Flyers got its start teaching men in the military to fly in 1939, which Weber said makes American Flyers the oldest flight school in the states.
 

Although there are fewer loans available from banks and it’s harder for some to afford flying lessons, Weber said there still are people with money who have a desire to get off the ground.

“This company has been through a lot,” Weber said, “and we always come out the other side.”