Steve Armour always knew he wanted to fly, but it was hard to shell out thousands of dollars for flight training when the market for pilots crashed during the Great Recession.
Armour, 43, went on with his life, managing a business until the high demand for pilots motivated him to take to the skies again.
Now, Armour is one of hundreds of would-be pilots from around the nation and world drawn by ideal conditions to flight training schools at Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport.
While the average person might look at Gateway, on the eastern fringe of Mesa, as a satellite airport with just one full-time carrier, the aviation industry looks at it as a hot spot for pilot training, with its long runways and 320 clear days a year for training flights and outstanding airspace.
Seventy-seven years after it opened in 1941 as an Army Air Corps training base during World War II, Gateway remains true to its original purpose and its legacy as Williams Air Force Base, which closed in 1993.
Students come from all around the country and even from China for training, lured by astronomical job growth forecasts such as those recently projected by Boeing.
Fueled by a combination of retirements, attrition and fleet growth, Boeing projects demand for 790,000 new pilots in the next 20 years – with 261,000 needed in the Asia Pacific region, 206,000 in North America and 146,000 in Europe.
With intense competition for pilots – especially at regional carriers that serve as stepping stones for major carriers – salaries and benefits also are rising, with such industry giants as Delta, United and American offering perks to get new talent into their cockpits.
“It’s a great training environment,’’ said Delta’s Brent Knoblauch, first officer on the Boeing 717 and pilot outreach manager for campus programs, in assessing Gateway’s value. “There are several programs that are great options.’’
While pilot training is nothing new at Gateway, the airport’s traditional role is taking on greater significance as the aviation industry looks to attract more new pilots into their pipeline.
At Gateway alone, three distinct training programs are available, although they overlap in some ways.
The University of North Dakota, in partnership with Chandler-Gilbert Community College, offers a two-year academic program with flight training.
Arizona State University’s aviation program features a four-year program, plus flight training by ATP, a national contractor.
ATP also offers a two-year fast-track pilot-training program with no academics, although many of its aspiring pilots have college credits in other disciplines.
Knoblauch said he toured 25-30 aviation instruction programs at a variety of airports before selecting the first eight partners for Delta’s new Propel program.
Propel is intended to establish an accelerated pipeline between the airline and young pilots in response to the pilot shortage.
“The air space and terrain there are very unique,’’ Knoblauch said. “It’s perfect for flight training, in terms of weather.’’
He said he was impressed by “the unique aviation culture at Mesa Gateway Airport,’’ so it comes as no surprise that the University of North Dakota’s four-year program and ATP, a national flight academy with a large facility at Gateway, were selected as initial partners.
ASU’s four-year program is hoping to be included when Delta expands Propel after getting it off the ground last month.
The University of North Dakota’s two-year program at Gateway, in conjunction with Chandler-Gilbert Community College, was not included because Delta is one of few major carriers to require a four-year degree.
Rex Ginder, site manager for the University of North Dakota’s Mesa training center, said he hopes Delta will reconsider, noting that his graduates are in great demand from other airlines. At this time, UND’s program in Grand Forks is included in Propel.
Southwest Airlines and United Airlines list a four-year degree as preferred, while American Airlines does not list a college requirement.
Delta is not the only major airline to offer such early hiring programs. American offers a cadet program through Envoy, one of its regional carriers, and United runs a program to fast-track young pilots to replenish its ranks.
Knoblauch said young pilots often take their first step in aviation at airports like Gateway, which are less busy than major hubs, such as Los Angeles or New York or even Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport.
“These smaller airports are breeding grounds for the inspiration to become a pilot,’’ said Knoblauch, with Delta focused on the next wave of pilots because it expects to hire 8,000 in the next decade.
He said ATP’s role in Propel is to train Delta employees who work in other jobs, such as flight attendants or gate agents, who are specially selected to pursue a new career as pilots.
Delta pilots also will serve as mentors for aspiring pilots chosen for Propel either internally or through college programs.
Armour said it’s nice to suddenly be wanted, after the low entry-level wages and anemic job openings at air carriers during the recession.
“It makes it more worth it. You know there’s a pilot job waiting,’’ Armour said. “Now, everything has changed around a great deal. I had a second chance at a dream.’’
After graduating from the University of North Dakota’s two-year aviation program, Armour is working as a flight instructor, getting paid while he racks up 1,500 hours of flight time.
Among Armour’s trainees are Chinese pilots who are under contract to three Chinese airlines that contract for flight training with the University of North Dakota’s Mesa program – Air China, Tibet and China Southern.
Ginder said his program has about 100 U.S pilots and 155 foreign pilots, mostly from China and a few from Korea.
“I haven’t seen anything like this,’’ Ginder said. “This is a booming time for young people in aviation.’’
He said graduates typically work for him as flight instructors for about 18 months, accumulating air time to qualify for jobs at a regional carrier.
He said the academic program costs about $5,000 to $6,000 per semester, followed by about $57,000 for the flight training.
“Airlines are doing great right now,’’ Ginder said. “They need to put that money back into hiring people’’ from his program and others.
Not unlike baseball’s minor league system or even medical school, the trainee pilots progressively achieve a series of seven different licenses to reach a major carrier, where they can earn a six-figure income.
Competition from regional airlines, which offer bonuses and incentives to flight instructors, puts pressure on the pilot pipeline, Ginder said.
“Attracting and training flight instructors is a constant challenge for us,’’ he said. “They’re here for the amount of time to fly 1,500 hours and not a minute longer.’’
Ginder said a major airline might require 3,000 to 5,000 hours of flight time, making the time spent flying for a regional airline vital in the pilot’s development.
“You start with flying solo, and it’s a great accomplishment,’’ said Collin Landwehr, an ASU student who is about to start work as a flight instructor at ATP, a major nationwide flight school with it’s largest training facility at Gateway. “It’s one step at a time.’’
“I like to think of it as medical school,’’ he said. “You put a whole bunch of money down and hope it pays off.’’
Citing the highly volatile aviation industry, Landwehr said he thinks it’s worth it to pursue a four-year degree.
“I think it’s always good to have a backup plan,’’ he said. “It makes you a well-rounded person.’’
Marc O’Brien, ASU’s aviation chair, said it takes a deep commitment, not a passing interest, to become a pilot. He said ASU has 450 aviation students, with the professional flight program growing to 84 from 60 in response to the pilot shortage.
O’Brien said about one-third of students eventually make it, while others go into equally essential but less glamorous aviation jobs, such as air traffic controller and airport management.
“You are held to a very high standard. There’s a lot of money and motivation,’’ O’Brien said. “You have to want this. It doesn’t come easy. You get evaluated all the time.’’
Students might complain about how long it takes to accumulate flight hours – which was increased from 300 hours by the Federal Aviation Administration after a fatality – but it presents even more motivation and another opportunity for learning.
The students are in a plane with dual controls so that a flight instructor can take over if necessary. Mistakes can occasionally prove fatal.
“I think the education continues after you become a flight instructor,’’ O’Brien said. “You get higher levels of learning when you teach something.’’
ASU students are trained on simulators that recreate flight, build model airlines to understand aerodynamics and even put a jet engine back together to gain a holistic understanding of aviation.
ATP’s program offers more intense flight training. ATP is more focused on getting young pilots’ jobs at regional airlines in only 42 months, said Michael Arnold, director of marketing.
He said many ATP students get college degrees in disciplines other than aviation, and ATP’s role is strictly flight training.
“We’re able to offer full financing for flight training. We also have partnerships with 12 regional airlines” which offer tuition reimbursement, and several more that do not, Arnold said.
He said most regional airlines don’t require a college degree, but he recommends more education so that pilots are trained for other careers if they lose their medical clearance to fly.
ATP has 1,200 students nationwide at 40 training sites, with Gateway the largest of them, Arnold said.
“A lot of people get attracted to it because it’s not a desk job and a cubicle,’’ Landwehr said. “It’s pretty unique.’’