WKYT Investigates | Addressing the pilot shortage

As the nation faces a growing pilot shortage, EKU’s Aviation program is growing to meet increasing demand.
As the nation faces a growing pilot shortage, EKU’s Aviation program is growing to meet increasing demand.
Published: Apr. 7, 2022 at 12:46 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Ky. (WKYT) - Ben Halcomb found himself on a recent spring morning yet again sitting behind the controls of a simulator inside of a virtual reality lab.

“Been spending a lot of time in the VR lately,” he said.

The headset was off, but Halcomb was talking through the process as he navigated his computer-generated airplane.

“Just like a real plane,” Halcomb said of the VR simulator experience. “Except you’re not moving.”

If practice makes perfect, then the next time Ben Halcomb climbs into a cockpit he will really be ready for takeoff - good news not just for Halcomb - “This saves me a lot of time and money,” he explained - but for an entire industry in desperate need of more young pilots.

The problem leading to a pilot shortage began before the pandemic, experts say, but as travel demand continues to bounce back the situation is expected to worsen. Aviation experts blame an aging workforce approaching the FAA-mandated retirement age of 65, fewer military pilots to pull from and barriers to entry (like cost) among other factors causing the shortage.

The shortage has the potential to impact a number of industries, including some large ones in Kentucky; the commonwealth is home to several major airports, plus primary hubs for UPS in Louisville and Amazon in Boone County.

But as the need for pilots continues to outpace the number of them, administrators at Eastern Kentucky University say they are scaling up the school’s aviation program to try to help meet demand.

“I think we’re contributing to or assisting in solving that problem for the nation,” said Dennis Sinnett, executive director of the Center for Aviation at EKU.

Most airlines need to hire 1,500-2,000 pilots per year to keep up with demand, Sinnett said. And that is where his students come in.

Enrollment in EKU’s professional flight program has risen steadily at nearly a 20 percent rate over the past three years, according to numbers provided by Kevin Moberly, flight operations manager and assistant chief. EKU Aviation now has more than 300 students enrolled in an aviation concentration, he said.

(The program’s other concentrations include airport management and, starting this fall, unmanned aircraft.)

From the simulators - in addition to the VR simulators, EKU also has two flight simulators that model a cockpit - to the skies, the growth is keeping everyone busy at Madison County’s Central Kentucky Regional Airport, where the program’s air operations are based. The program has executed more than 3,500 operations so far this year, and is on track to exceed 20,000 for the year, Moberly said.

The demand for pilots means that many students can walk out with a degree and a job.

Dakota Morris, who graduates in May, says his goal is to fly for an airline that carries cargo.

“UPS, FedEx, Atlas, something like that,” Morris, piloting a Cessna 172, said over the radio to WKYT’s Garrett Wymer, who was strapped in the seat beside him as the two flew above Richmond. “Even if you want to do what I do, you go to a regional carrier, get your hours that you need to fly larger aircraft, then move on, progress up and get your seniority.”

Many larger carriers - including cargo and commercial airlines - hire from regional carriers, experts say, meaning that the expected hiring frenzy will create plenty of job openings even for newer pilots with less experience.

EKU’s program is designed to take students through the certifications that administrators say they need in order to be employed when they graduate: Private, Instrument, Commercial and Certified Flight Instructor. As an FAA-approved restricted 1,000-hour ATP (Airline Transport Pilot) program, students need fewer flight hours than they would going through a two-year program or a regular flight school.

“Being the only four-year, university-based program [in Kentucky] it’s a huge draw for the students, certainly within the state,” Sinnett said. “But this semester we have students from 25 different states - as far away as Alaska.”

Right now, EKU Aviation has 27 aircraft in its fleet, but officials say they are looking to buy eight more; the program also plans to break ground on a new terminal building and flight operations center this year to help meet increased demand.

But experts, including Sinnett, say part of addressing the pilot shortage requires reaching populations who may have been under-represented or under-served in the past, including women and minorities.

In Kentucky, that also means reaching farther into Appalachia.

Sinnett says that is why they have placed simulators (just like the ones in their VR lab) in a dozen high schools around the region.

Halcomb, who is from Richmond, says he is in his first semester as an aviation student after previously working in a different field. It did not take long for him to realize what he likes about his new career path.

“There’s so many cool things you can do with flying,” he said. “The possibilities are endless.”

For the future of an industry that needs more students to discover that, and which needs more pilots in the air - the program here is building up its capacity on the ground to try to get them there.

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