Flight school addresses pilot shortage

High cost deters students from learning to fly

The airline industry is facing a staffing crunch -- a worldwide pilot shortage -- making it tougher to grow and expand. Airlines need more pilots in training to replace retiring Baby Boomers and keep their planes in the air.

One flight school has found a unique way to keep pilots in the pipeline, and the industry is paying attention.

Just a few years ago, Mils Thindwa was working for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. But he dreamed of becoming a commercial airline pilot. But all the training was just too expensive -- at more than $60,000.

"It was looking bleak for a while," Thindwa said. "I was going to settle doing that 9-to-5 Washington, D.C., commute."

Thindwa felt he was missing out on what some in the industry consider to be the best time ever to get into aviation. With thousands of Baby Boomer pilots retiring, there is a worldwide pilot shortage.

"They are not able to hire the numbers they want, so they have scaled back on flights," Danny Perna said.

The pilot shortage was also hurting Perna, the founder of Epic Flight Academy. He couldn't find enough experienced pilots willing to work as instructors.

Perna's solution was a sponsorship program. Under the program, which Perna said was the first-of-its-kind in the industry, the flight school would help pay the tuition for promising cadets.

In exchange, those students would be required to work at Epic Flight Academy as instructors for approximately two years as they logged the 1,500 flight hours required to become professional airline pilots.

Kayla Keith, who grew up on a farm, said her mom struggled to pay for her early flight training.

"My mom pretty much put everything on the line to get me here," Keith said. "Honestly, they don't ask for a lot in return. You have to be a flight instructor anyway, so why would I not come here?"

Javier Martinez left his family in Arizona to take part in the program.

"It was a big sacrifice, but I really wanted to be a pilot," Martinez said.

He's now poised to take advantage of the pilot shortage and some day earn a six-figure salary.

Aircraft manufacturer Boeing estimates 17,000 more pilots will be needed over the next two decades in North America alone. The program at Epic Flight Academy is full, but they said the funding model was so successful, they believe airlines will eventually replicate it.

Portions of this article courtesy of WKMG-TV.

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