Sunday, January 24, 2016

La Crosse, Wisconsin: Pilot explains challenges to a career in aviation

La Crosse, WI (WXOW) -  Commercial airline pilots are regarded as one of the most prestigious careers out there and also one of the most stressful. 

The pressure is high, especially for airline pilots who are responsible for keeping their passengers safe, not to mention keeping flights on time despite changes in weather.

Experts in the industry will tell you there is a major shortage of pilots.

"Right now there are unprecedented opportunities with the aviation industry,” Elizabeth Bjerke, Aviation Chair at the University of North Dakota explained.

“The U.S. is facing a severe pilot shortage to fly the aircraft and that is coupled by more retirement at the major airlines. They are hitting the mandatory retirement age of 65 so they have more attrition there as well as the economy has definitely rebounded after the 2008 recession,” Bjerke said. 

Young pilots like Skyler Groenning, a commercial pilot and flight instructor at Colgan Air Services in La Crosse said he’s working towards a career flying for the airlines. But it doesn't come easy.

"There's this sense of total freedom when you are flying the airplane,” Groenning said. “For me it's something I always knew I wanted to do so that's how it is for a lot of people.”

Becoming pilot was not the first career path Groenning pursued. 

He completed a Bachelors degree in Biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse before deciding he wanted to fly.  

While some complete a four year degree in aviation, Groenning took a different route to get there. First he completed his private pilot certificate, then his commercial pilot certificate, and now he's a certified flight instructor.

"There is a lot of time and money commitment to it, but usually it's the time commitment that is hardest for most people. People will find the money, they'll make it work but the time thing is hard,” Groenning said.

The FAA now requires 1,500 hours of flight time to become an airline pilot. That changed in 2013 when the requirement jumped from 250 hours to 1,500 to become a co-pilot. Airline captains we're already required to have at least 15 hundred hours.

That takes years to accomplish and there's a hefty price to pay.

"It's not unusual for a pilot to go from just entering to getting all their certificates to be $100,000 in debt,” Clint Torp, manager at the La Crosse Regional Airport said.

"You just have to be willing to make the sacrifice on the front end. Yeah you look these airlines and these guys flying these 747s and they're making a very good living but there was a lot of sacrifice that led up to that,” Groenning added.

But is it worth it? Or is the time and money unrealistic expectation for young pilots?

“In any professional career, whatever it is there are always sacrifices and I wouldn't say 1,500 would really hinder anyone who really wants to do it,” Groenning said.

“If someone really wants to do this, they are going to do it. Whether it's 1,500 hours, 2,000, 3,000 hours,” he said.

Bjerke said the aviation industry needs to find a way to attract more people to the field, but she said lowering flight time requirements is not the answer. 

"Even if  you lower the numbers, lets say from 1,000 to 700 you still have the same number of pilots. There might be an initial bubble but you still have the same number,” she said the industry needs to increase exposure. If it can increase the pilot pool coming in, that can begin to relieve the shortage. 

"We need to get more individuals interested in understanding that this is a viable career path and it's an exciting one and their are a lot of opportunities in the aviation industry right now.”

Groenning said that's something he learned long ago. 

Right now he is working toward reaching his 1,500 hours of flight time. He has 1,250 completed. Once he reaches that benchmark he can decide if he wants to pursue a career flying for the airlines. 

“I am very happy with what I am doing,” he said, “I don't feel like I go to work. I get to go here and fly airplanes."

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