MIAMI — At a small grass airfield atop the bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard, Chris Novia prepared for his first flying lesson. Like many kids his age, Novia had a passion for flight.
But this 11-year-old was different. Each summer, he sat against the airport diner’s window, watching prop planes perform “touch and goes” off Katama’s 3,700-foot airstrip. He and his family took biplane rides, and he even formed friendships with airport employees.
Novia, now 18, is one of thousands of American teenage pilots who are either in training or who have obtained their pilot’s license. Novia and his peers are part of an ever-shrinking number of youth who are taking to the skies, a trend that alarms many aviation analysts who see the recent decline in commercial pilots as a significant risk to the flying community.
According to airplane manufacturing firm Boeing, North America will need 112,000 pilots by 2035. Chad Marek, fleet captain of Netjets China, worries that this shortage will not be met.
“There are simply not enough young people wanting to get into aviation nowadays. The cost is too high and the salary new pilots receive can’t cover the loans to pay for their training,” Marek said.
“Throughout most of the country, flight schools are going out of business because there aren’t enough people coming in who want to pursue it as a career.”
Although the median pay to fly a large jet is around $121,000, many first-year pilots earn about $20,000, according to Phoenix East Aviation. In contrast, the average Washington, D.C., bus driver earns $63,000 annually.
Marek said, “Once the regional airlines and other time-building jobs raise their pay, there will be more young pilots.”
In addition to financial limits, new pilot rest and duty rules have spurred a 10-15 percent need for more aviators, but current hiring standards require 1,500 flight hours from each candidate, further decreasing interest from prospective candidates, Marek said. Additionally, a significant number of the pilot population is retiring. By 2022, for example, 20,000 pilots will hang up their wings as they reach the 65-year-old age limit, Aviation Week reported.
To combat this shortage, several flying clubs are focusing recruitment on teenagers.
One organization is the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program, which offers free ground school training and introductory flights to youth ages 8-17 in hopes they will continue to pursue their pilot’s license.
Founded in 1992, the Young Eagles program celebrated its 2 millionth demo flight this July, membership representative Preston Goepz said. All intro flights are piloted by Association members, who are general aviation, commercial or corporate pilots.
Marek said, “A large number of our pilots are involved with the EAA. They’ll get together with the fly-ins and do the Young Eagle rides.”
Goepz said that in light of the recent pilot shortage, Association members have taken the initiative to promote flight among youth.
“If we don’t continue to get more young people and we are losing older people or people who are getting out if it, then there is going to be a problem,” Goepz said.
Sixteen-year-old Los Angeles pilot Kristian Emel was attracted to aviation by a program like Young Eagles: the Boy Scouts’ Aviation Explorer Program.
“I’ve always been really into aviation, but I haven’t really had a portal to get involved in it. I was able to go through a local program that specializes in taking young kids and training them to develop a love for aviation,” Emel said. “I think with the recent awareness of lack of commercial pilots, such programs have stepped up recruiting and advertising and have been able to gather a lot of youth.”
Programs like Young Eagles have found success by teaching cross-disciplinary skills that go beyond aviation, Cindy Hasselbring, senior director of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association High School Aviation Initiative, said.
“When you are in charge of an airplane, you are responsible for a really expensive machine, your own life and the life of your passengers,” Hasselbring said. “You also have to learn communication and leadership— not to mention all of the skills involved with flying: navigating, math calculation, planning a cross-country flight, weight and balance.”
The group’s high school program is working to integrate aviation-based science, technology, engineering and math courses into high school curricula to attract students to aviation. In addition, it plans to make these courses align with four aviation-related career opportunities, including piloting and aeronautical engineering.
The Association has approved the program and has sent proposals to prospective sponsors. Hasselbring hopes the first course will be introduced by the fall of 2017.
Furthermore, some airlines have opened youth recruitment campaigns abroad. Netjets China recently introduced a program that identifies prospective Chinese pilots in high school or college. After an interview, approved candidates are put through flight school; become flight instructors in North America and return to China, where they join the airline as second officers. The cadets earn their captain wings as they gain more flight time.
The program has several benefits that may attract younger pilots to the corporate airline field, Marek said.
“It’s a several year period, but it saves them money, they are able to get a job and we will focus on getting more qualified people in from a young age,” Marek said. “We guarantee that they’ll actually know how we want them to do things.”
One cadet has completed the program, and four are waiting to attend flight school.
Similar recruitment programs include JetBlue’s University Gateway and American Airlines/Envoy Air’s Envoy Cadet Program. Both programs help student pilots in the United States become airline first officers.
Increasing pilot personnel will benefit more than just the airlines, Marek said.
“It’s important because aviation as a whole is a big part of the economy, from the money generated by the aviation companies themselves to all the companies that support them,” Marek said. “Many small communities depend on business aviation to keep their local airports open.”
For enthusiasts like Emel, sustaining aviation means preserving a passion.
“I feel that aviation gives me a sense of freedom and flying the plane allows me to feel like I have control over my current situation,” Emel said. “I know that a lot of times in young people’s lives there’s a lot of moving parts that we can’t comprehend. I feel like when I’m in my aircraft, it’s just me, the engine, the yolk and my flight instructor, and I can control my destiny.”