Torrance flight school hopes to help alleviate pilot shortage – by launching new ones

Flight instructor Sean Suarez, left, trains Natalie Gallo, a senior at West Hills High School, inside an advanced simulator on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

A group of seniors from West Hills High School attend a pilot training event for students on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. From left, First Officer Tyler Powell and instructor Janessa Larsuel join students Natalie Gallo, Anthony Maloney, Caden Cowles, Zachary Bodyfelt and Maxmilian Bartecek. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

Natalie Gallo, a senior at West Hills High School, learns about a Sling aircraft from pilot Tyler Powell on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

Natalie Gallo, a senior at West Hills High School, gets training inside an advanced simulator on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

A group of seniors from West Hills High School attend a pilot training event for students on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. From left, instructor Nina Yang, pilot Tyler Powell and student/instructor Janessa Larsuel join students Natalie Gallo, Anthony Maloney, Caden Cowles, Zachary Bodyfelt and Maxmilian Bartecek. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

A group of seniors from West Hills High School attend a pilot training event for students on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. From left, First Officer Tyler Powell and instructor Janessa Larsuel join students Natalie Gallo, Anthony Maloney, Caden Cowles, Zachary Bodyfelt and Maxmilian Bartecek.

Seniors from West Hills High School learn the basics of building an airplane from Edwin Gamez at a pilot training event for students on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

Students learn how to make rivets at a pilot training event on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

Natalie Gallo, a senior at West Hills High School, learns about a Sling aircraft from pilot Tyler Powell on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

Natalie Gallo, a senior at West Hills High School, gets training inside an advanced simulator on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

Students learn how to make rivets at a pilot training event on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

Natalie Gallo and Zachary Bodyfelt, seniors at West Hills High School, attend a pilot training event for students on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

Flight instructor Jaidan Millar, right, guides Alicia Pena, a sophomore at Cerritos College, inside an advanced simulator on Saturday, Mar. 11, 2023, at the Sling Pilot Academy in Torrance Airport in Torrance. (Photo by Howard Freshman, Contributing Photographer)

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More than 700 hundred people gathered at Torrance Airport on Saturday, March 11, to experience what it’s like to be a pilot.

“A lot of people just don’t realize what a good job being a pilot is,” said Wayne Toddun, co-CEO of Sling Pilot Academy, located at 3401 Airport Drive in Torrance.

To cope with the worldwide pilot shortage, Toddun said the school is giving away 200 free flights to high school juniors and seniors and college students to encourage them to pursue pilot as a career. However, due to the weather on Saturday, the school will reschedule the flights at a future time. No date has been set yet.

The organizer had planned to give away only 100 flights, but tickets for the flights were snapped up so quickly that the organizer added 100 new ones.

Despite the pouring rain, participants began to show up as early as 8 am. They were given an introductory lesson to flying and received hands-on simulator flight training. Staff from SkyWest Airlines were present to answer questions from future young pilots, so were representatives from Women in Aviation, The Ninety-Nines, Professional Asian Pilot Association and Latino Pilot Association and other multicultural associations.

The organizer awarded two scholarships, each worth $18,000, to Cameron Criss from Cal State LA and Heaven Valenzulea from Marietta High School. Matt Liknaitzky, co-CEO of the flight school, said the students were chosen for the scholarships because of their interest and attitude in aviation, high GPAs, as well as their abilities and desire to go down the path to becoming a pilot.

The scholarships were taken from the $500,000 aviation workforce development grant that Sling received from the Federal Aviation Administration, which aims to inspire a more diverse pool of pilots and aviation maintenance technicians to join the next generation of aviation professionals. The school will use the grant to recruit and train local high school students as pilots and to teach teachers about careers in aviation.

Toddun said that right now is a “really good timing” to join the workforce, because “there’s a lot of opportunities for pilots right now.”

The global commercial aviation industry has faced a shortage of pilots since years before the pandemic. Its causes varied across regions of the world. A combination of aging pilot population and heavy use of early retirements have contributed to the pilot scarcity in North America.

As COVID-19 restrictions ease and air travel rebounds across the world, experts believe the pilot supply gap will only widen throughout the decade. For example, Oliver Wyman, a management consulting firm, predicts that North America will be short nearly 30,000 pilots by 2032.

Boeing’s 2022 Pilot and Technician Outlook forecasts that the industry will need to fill 2.1 million new aviation jobs over the next 20 years to fully support commercial air travel recovery and meet rising long-term growth. According to Boeing, 602,000 pilots, 610,000 maintenance technicians and 899,000 cabin crew members will be needed over the next two decades.

“There’s just such a big shortage, and it peaks in about eight years. So it’s really good timing for people to get into it right now,” Toddun said.

Despite the potential for a six-figure salary, the cost and years of training required to become an airline pilot have made many people hesitant about pursuing the profession. But Toddun said the return on investment is higher than professions such as a doctor.

The tuition cost for a nine-month program at Sling is around $70,000, Toddun said. Students also need to set aside around $7,000 for written exams and check rides, making the total cost of education at the academy to be under $80,000, he added.

In order to graduate from Sling, one needs to complete 280 hours of flying. After that, the student needs to fill 1,500 hours of flying as an instructor before they can move on to a job at a regional airline. The period as an instructor, which is like a paid internship, usually lasts around a year and a quarter to a year and a half, Toddun said.

“Now, within three years, they’re going be earning over $200,000 a year, roughly, and once they get very experienced, so like if you get a job with a major airline flying what we call wide-bodies, so the big aircraft, then you could be earning anywhere from $380,000 a year up to $450,000 a year,” he said.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers made a median salary of $202,180 in 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $100,110, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $208,000.

Commercial pilots take home an annual wage of $99, 640, on average. Most pilots begin their first job as first officers. The average first officer salary is around $72,392 in California and $64,810 in the US, as of February 2023, according to salary.com.

Some students at Sling made the mid-career shift to become a pilot due to economic consideration.

Riki Byrnes, 32, a certified flight instructor-instrument (CFII) at Sling, used to work as a flight attendant on Hawaiian Airlines, but he has always had an innate curiosity about what’s happening in the cockpit.

“We will go open the cockpit, and I’m always asking all these questions, like, what’s this? What’s that?” said Byrnes, who’s originally from Tokyo, Japan.

So when he was furloughed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Byrnes decided to follow his passion.

“I was like, maybe this is the best time to take my training,” he said. Byrnes did some research and discovered Sling on Instagram. He decided to attend the school because it costed $20,000 less than other flight academies, Byrnes said.

Cindy Morris, 34, also a CFII at Sling, stumbled upon the career while completing her stewardess license to become a flight attendant in her native country of Spain.

Then in 2008, the economic crisis hit, making it difficult for airlines to operate. The European airlines were hit especially hard, Morris said. Therefore, Morris continued her studies to become an accountant. She moved to the US after completing her master’s degree and decided to give pilot a shot on the side of her full-time accounting job.

“After getting my private pilot license and seeing how fun it was, I decided to continue this full time and make it a second career, in my 30s,” she said.

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To help alleviate the shortage, many major airlines, such as Delta, Southwest, United and American Airlines, no longer require their pilots to hold a four-year bachelor’s degree. This change has opened the doors to those seeking an alternative career route or students working to make ends meet while spending years in college, Toddun said.

Janessa Larsuel, a 20-year-old from Long Beach, was pursuing an engineering degree at a college when she decided that the 9-to-5 lifestyle wasn’t for her.

“I feel like in high school, when they’re giving you career options, they give you such a small select group, and being a pilot isn’t necessarily one of them,” she said.

Larsuel started looking for careers that offer a more flexible schedule and landed on Sling.

There are a lot of career options in the airline industry, besides being a pilot, said Christian Walsh, a 30-year-old CFII at Sling, who’s originally from Australia.

“If you work for an airline, there’s a bazillion jobs apart from being a pilot. You could be a simulator instructor. You could work in any point of management there,” he said.

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