The American aviation industry is facing a big problem: a shortage of pilots. The big airlines alone expect they’ll need more than ten thousand new pilots in the next few years, and thousands more will be needed to fly for regional airlines, and the military. Erin Golackson set out to learn why that is. And to see how tough it would be to become a pilot herself.
(Sound of small airplane overhead)
Tom Fischer owns Fischer Aviation in Fairfield, New Jersey. It’s a small flight training facility, and he’s the lead instructor.
And today he’s teaching me to fly.
FISCHER 1 (scene) So you can see I put the key on the dashboard, so I can see it when I go to check the propeller. (yeah) Kind of important.
He walks with me around the plane for the pre flight inspection. We check every single part of the aircraft. The instruments and switches inside, the wheels, the brakes, the bolts holding the wings together, the fuel…
FISCHER 2 (scene) And speaking of the fuel out of the tank, let’s take some out of here. (sound of fuel) So we’re checking the color. It should be blue (fade under) While we’re here we’re checking our tire, inflated…. ignition, propeller.
It’s a small, white and burnt-orange airplane. A model called a Cherokee. It can hold just a couple people, a pilot and a copilot. It kind of feels like a vintage station wagon, you know the kind with the fake wood paneling on the side? Yeah. That one. And inside it has that smell of old upholstery.
Golackson: How old is this plane?
Fischer: Guess. (laugh)
Golackson: Oh I don’t know.. Is it older than me?
Much older, in fact. It’s been flying since 1966.
In aviation right now, it’s not just some of the planes that are old. The pilots are getting older too. As they retire, it’s one thing causing a major pilot shortage in the U.S. And it’s getting worse.
As a quick fix, the Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, pushed the mandatory retirement age up from 60 to 65 just to keep older airline pilots around a little longer. But that’s not going to solve the issue.
What this pilot shortage means for travelers, is delays because of scheduling problems, cancelled and disrupted service at small regional airports, and increased ticket prices.
Fischer says the shortage is causing causing panic in the industry…. And not all airlines are going to make it.
FISCHER 4: The stronger organizations will hopefully stick around and the weaker ones will kind of fall off.
And he worries… some will survive by cutting corners.
Like on maintenance. Which seems crazy, after the inspection we just went through. And we’re not done. Now, Fischer and I climb up onto the wing and into the cockpit.
FISCHER: (scene) “CLEAR PROP”
We review the instruments and controls.
(Sound: engine starting)
Now we’re taxi-ing toward the runway, which is just a strip of concrete on a field of green grass surrounded by trees.
(Air traffic control sounds through headset)
(sound of take-off, underneath)
And off we go…
(plane engine buzzing)
It’s noon and we’re flying beneath scattered, puffy clouds. Nothing but a few inches of 50 year old metal between us and five thousand feet of air. I learn that flying requires a lot of multitasking. Watching your altitude, keeping the horizon level and in your sight, applying pressure to the yoke—kind of like the steering wheel of the plane—to bank left or right and control the nose. And watching for other planes. And that’s not even half the things you have to keep track of.
(fade down sound of plane)
Becoming a pilot isn’t easy… The biggest reason there’s such a shortage of pilots right now though is simple: it’s just not a practical career choice.
Owen Golding is 22, the youngest instructor at the Fischer airfield. He’s trying to earn enough flying experience to be a professional pilot, hopefully for an airline.
GOLDING 1 Yeah you know I can’t really imagine doing anything else with my life. I’ve decided this is for me.
But we’re far from the days when flying was glamorous and pilots were paid accordingly. If anything, it’s a huge financial sacrifice for young would-be pilots like Golding.
Here’s one reason why: In 2009, a commuter airliner crashed on its way from Newark to Buffalo, killing all 49 people on board and one on the ground. In response to lobbying from victim’s families, Congress passed a law in 2013 requiring fifteen hundred hours of experience before you could even apply for a job at an airline. And those are the hours that Golding is putting in now. It’s more than triple what was required before.
GOLDING 2: With such little pay and such high training costs, it’s a recipe for disaster for them… why are you going to spend all those years doing that when you could have started with a completely different career and get paid more when you start working..
In practical terms, this is what it means: you want to be an airline pilot? It’s going to cost you a hundred grand or more in plane rental fees and several years of training to get the required experience. And then, let’s say you get that job. Congratulations. Starting pay is somewhere between 20 or 30 thousand per year at the small regional airlines, where you’ll probably start.
And most pilots in training don’t stick with it. But Golding will. He says he knew it, the first time he flew:
GOLDING: It’s just um, a kind of internal addiction that long term pilots have. You know, like I knew I had to get right back into it as soon as I could. There’s a certain majesty to it. Leaving the ground for the first time.
This is Jodi Fischer, Tom Fischer’s wife. She handles the company’s administration. She’s seen pilots like Golding before.
JODI 1: Most of the people who are a success, they’ve wanted it their whole life. (Phone: Fischer aviation Jodi speaking.)
Her husband is one of those who are passionate. You might even say obsessed.
JODI 2: he’ll lay on the floor in the living room And as soon as he falls asleep he starts talking in his sleep and he’s giving lessons. And it’s like are you serious! Like he never stops flying. Not even in his sleep.
FISCHER 5: I do because I grew up around it myself and can remember being five years old… and cleaning the wheels that my father was flying because I could fit under the plane.
I know this culture too. When I was five, my dad showed me around the hangars and the jets at Edwards Air Force Base in the desert in California, where he worked.
I also remember burping into the PA system with my older brother and my father coming in just livid because it was broadcasting to the entire airport.
I mean I never did that… But my dad took me to air shows, and always encouraged me to fly. Now I’m finally trying it. –
(sound of plane)
And I can see why people do it. Why they love it. I mean… It’s beautiful up here. Maybe, if this whole radio thing doesn’t work out, I’ll give it a shot…
But for now this is Erin Golackson, Columbia Radio News.