It’s not only general aviation that faces a pilot shortage. With an estimated 30,000 commercial pilots reaching retirement age in the next 10 years, and aircraft orders from Boeing and Airbus alone requiring as many as 18,000 pilots a year for the next decade to crew them, according to the companies, airlines are scrambling to find the first officers and captains of tomorrow.
If history is any indication, hundreds of these pilots will come from Aerosim Flight Academy. It was founded as Comair in 1989 and rechristened the Delta Connection Academy after the airline purchased the school in 2003. The school’s name was changed again after Aerosim, a Minnesota-based manufacturer of flight-training systems, bought the company in 2009. Plane & Pilot was invited to Aerosim’s main campus at Sanford International Airport (KSFB) in Orlando, Fla., to see the operation firsthand. (A branch campus is located on Houston’s Ellington Field Airport—KEFD.)
Operations at the high-traffic airport, which handles international flights from Europe, is in Class C airspace under Orlando’s Class B veil, immersing students in the busy and dynamic airline environment they’re training for. Taxiing toward Avion FBO after arrival, some of Aerosim’s training fleet, which includes 32 single-engine Cirrus SR20s and 12 twin-engine Piper Seminoles along with a few Cessna 172s and Piper Arrows, were visible on the ramp. Most were out flying.
Everything about Aerosim’s training is designed to replicate “how the airlines operate,” said Mike Campbell, Director of Academic Affairs, as he explained the program in his office. “The checklists we use, the way students flight-plan and do paperwork for every flight, the way the aircraft are dispatched.” Added Tom Mendenhall, Sr. Admissions Officer, “We treat brand-new students like it’s Day One of their airline careers.”
Aerosim isn’t to be confused with institutions like Embry-Riddle, which provide a four-year college-degree program for a variety of aviation careers. Aerosim is focused solely on producing professional pilots, and instead of diplomas, students earn a slew of pilot certificates. Most of the 300 students are enrolled in the Professional Pilot Program, which includes private pilot certificate, instrument rating, commercial multi-engine certificate, commercial single-engine add-on rating and certified flight instructor. Requiring about nine months to a year to complete, it includes more than 170 hours of flight and simulator time, as well as classes, briefings, lab work and FAA written and practical tests. (Aerosim uses Part 141 Train To Proficiency standards, an exemption to 141 regulations that allows Aerosim students to complete a commercial certificate in 125 hours.)
Aerosim gives some graduates their first jobs as pilots—the academy’s 100 flight instructors are all grads. Most instruct for 10 months to a year, flying about 800 hours, and then move on to a job with a regional airline.
“Literally, from the time someone sits down in the classroom on his first day, within 24 months most of them could be flying right seat of a CRJ (Canadair Regional Jet),” Campbell explained about the fast-paced career track.
The school’s SR20s are all equipped with Avidyne glass panels, making grads attractive to regional carriers, Campbell said. “A lot of airlines like the fact that when graduates leave here, there’s no transition needed from steam gauges to glass. If someone can fly the Cirrus, the transition into a CRJ is pretty simple. Once you get into an FMS (Flight Management System) on a CRJ, it’s the same entering of waypoints and coordinates the students are used to.” The Seminoles have steam gauges, ensuring that students are well versed in both legacy and contemporary panels.
The training fleet at Aerosim’s main campus, based at Sanford International Airport in Orlando, includes 32 Cirrus SR20s, 12 Piper Seminoles, as well as a handful of Cessna 172s and Piper Arrows.
Aerosim also offers an “M-1” program that earns students a single-engine land rating, instrument rating and commercial multi-engine (CME) rating. For pilots who already have ratings and experience, but want to get current and upgrade their skills for an airline job, Aerosim also offers a “Jet Bridge” program with ground school and about 27 hours in a CRJ simulator, incorporating cockpit resource management (CRM) training.
“ASA (Atlantic Southeast Airlines) was in our office recruiting recently, and they hired one of our graduates that went through the Jet Bridge program who was 60 years old,” Campbell said. “They figured, ‘We can get five years out of him before mandatory retirement, and we know he’s not going to be looking for another job.'”
The Aerosim Campus and Facilities
A tour of the facility illustrated that there’s much more to professional flight training than an airplane and a good instructor. At the Learning Resource Center, props like engine parts and a cutaway piston engine and variable pitch prop enable students to see the mechanical workings of aircraft systems. In the Computer Lab, students can learn to operate avionics packages on the ground and practice ATC communications. The school also has several simulators, including four FTD Level 6 trainers. Used to prepare for actual flights, students can practice emergency procedures and fly approaches, maximizing the return on their training time.
The Professional Pilot Program has a spring, summer and autumn start date. An M-1 Program starts each month. Many of Aerosim’s students are from overseas, and the academy has an immigration specialist on staff to help students with visas and other paperwork foreign nationals are required to file. Two hundred of the current Professional Pilot Program students are from China, their education paid by the government. Mendenhall noted that Aerosim must meet training standards set by Chinese aviation authorities as well as the FAA, in addition to standards set by the U.S. Department of Education and the Florida Department of Education.
“We have a lot of authorities we have to answer to,” Mendenhall said. “Only about a dozen schools in the world have all the necessary certifications to teach Chinese students.”
Academy graduate Mark Libretto, Class of 2000 and now first officer for a major domestic airline, often returns to campus to addresses students. “I tell them this,” he said. “This is one of the easiest routes to an airline job. However, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy or it’s handed to you. As long as you put out the effort through all the ratings and get that experience, you will be qualified for an interview with the airlines.”
The Cost Of Professional Pilot Training
The cost of the Professional Pilot Program is $70,024.24. The M-1 Program is $46,826.00, and the Jet Bridge Program about $4,500.00. The Professional Pilot program is eligible for Federal Title IV financial assistance, but Campbell acknowledges that finding banks that will provide loans to pay for the program has become difficult. This gets to the heart of a financial conundrum facing many would-be professional pilots: How can they justify spending this amount of money training for a career where starting salaries (say, with a regional airline,) are about $20,000 per year?
“They have to see the big picture,” said Campbell. “It’s like being a doctor in residency after medical school. There’s long hours and low pay, but you’re working on your trade. You’re building experience, and your pay will continually go up, and when you make captain, you’ll earn a lot more money. And with the huge demand, you will always have a flying job.”