Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Do Something Magical: Learn To Fly

Innovation continues to change flight training, but it’s still about the fun

Sport Pilot
Easily the biggest news in flying in at least three decades is the introduction of the sport pilot rule. The sport pilot certificate was created in September 2004 after years of lobbying by the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). The EAA recognized that many would-be pilots were put off by the requirements of the private pilot certificate, which they considered onerous (and expensive) for their purpose of recreational flying. The idea of the new rule was to lower the barriers of entry into aviation and make flying more affordable and accessible. It has succeeded wildly.

To earn a sport pilot certificate, you only need 20 hours of flight instruction (and only five of those hours need to be solo), as compared to 40 for the private pilot certificate. You'll only need one solo cross-country of 75 miles as opposed to much more for the private. For many people, the best part is that you don't need a special medical certificate, you just need a valid driver's license. Of course, you need to be at least 17 years old and English proficient.

The sport pilot certificate is more restrictive than the private. You can only carry one passenger; you must fly only VFR during daylight hours; you can't fly higher than 10,000 feet; and you must fly a light-sport aircraft (LSA). The LSAs are a special category of aircraft that have a maximum takeoff weight of 1,320 pounds (compared to a max of 12,500 pounds for the private pilot certificate).

The list of benefits of the sport pilot certificate is long, and that's why it has become so popular. In a recent online comparison, the average LSA rental rate in Southern California was around $110/hour, while a much older Cessna 172 was renting for an average of about $160/hour. If you figure in the fewer hours required, you can count on earning your sport pilot certificate for about half the cost of a private. Finally, LSA aircraft are light, fun to fly and it's argued they make you a better pilot as a result.

Pilot Shortage: The Trend Continues
Lots of signs in the aviation industry are pointing to a pilot shortage in the years ahead. As I write this, the 2011 airline hiring numbers are being published by airline employment experts The trend is certainly encouraging for those wishing to become professional pilots.

In 2009—the airline industry's worst hiring year in history—only 30 pilots were hired by the 12 major domestic airlines. The year 2010, however, saw a marked increase with 408 pilots hired, and 2011 was an exemplary year, seeing 728 new pilots hired by the majors.

The driving force behind the idea of a coming pilot shortage is the explosion of air travel. Boeing's highly respected "Current Market Outlook" report for 2011 shows that passenger air traffic rose 8% for the year in 2010 after a decline in 2009. A 6% increase held through 2011, beating the report's overall forecast of a 5% increase year over year for the next two decades.

Boeing's long-range forecast anticipates delivery of 33,500 new airliners over the next 20 years, valued at more than $4.0 trillion. United Airlines recently announced new orders for the Boeing 787 as well as the Airbus A350, now that the airline has merged with Continental Airlines. Airliner orders will, of course, drive the need for pilots as new routes are added and the number of passengers increases.

Southwest Airlines announced they'll hire 140 pilots in the first quarter of 2012, and U.S. Airways confirmed they'll hire 20-30 per month through the year. Meanwhile, freight giant FedEx said it will bring on 500 new pilots over the next two years.

There are troubles in the pipeline that supplies professional pilots to the industry. According to the FAA, student pilot starts were at their lowest in 2009 with just over 72,000 students in the system. The military isn't graduating as many pilots as they have in past decades, and many military pilots are staying in the military longer. While 1,280 pilots left the military in 2007, only 240 left active duty in 2010.

The best statistic to judge future availability of pilots is the FAA's "Original Airmen Certificates Issued" report. This reflects how many pilots are finishing training and going into the pilot supply pool. The numbers are disturbing. The year 2010 was the lowest year on record with 83,632 certificates issued, of which only 3,072 were ATP (Airline Transport Pilot)—the required certificate to fly for the airlines. Compared to 2001 when 7070 ATP certificates were issued, the downward trend is evident.

One encouraging trend for general aviation is the explosion of sport pilots. Only 133 sport pilot certificates were issued in 2005—the year after the new certificate was announced. In 2010, approximately 4,350 sport pilot certificates issued.

International airlines—especially those in the Asian market—are seeing a huge increase in passenger traffic. Emerging Asian economies are outpacing the world GDP (gross domestic product), and airlines in those countries are forecast to be the most profitable. Asian airlines in particular are already experiencing delays and operational interruptions due to pilot scheduling shortages.

According to Boeing, as the world commercial fleet expands to more than 39,500 airplanes over the next 20 years, the world's airlines will need to add 460,000 pilots and 650,000 maintenance technicians, both to fly and maintain the new airplanes and to replace current personnel who are due to retire during the period. All these indicators point to a pilot shortage that possibly has already begun.


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