There are about 130 commercial and general aviation airports all across Florida. These small airports are doing big things for the world of aviation.
Joanna McPherson started taking flight lessons about three years ago. The mother of six says being as high as the birds is a challenging and unforgettable experience.
“I’ve done my private, my instrument, my commercial and I’m working on my CFI now,” she said.
While Joanna is in flight school, she’s also working at Peter O. Knight airport for Atlas Aviation.
“It’s getting really busy. We sign new people up to fly every single week,” Joanna said. “We have people doing check rides almost every single week.”
It is an industry that has really taken off — especially here in the Sunshine State.
“They call it visual flight rules, VFR weather. We have more VFR days in Florida than just about any other state in the country,” Atlas Aviation chief pilot Dave Presnell said.
According to FAA data, about 23% of U.S. pilots are trained right here in Florida, more than any other state. Even in the midst of the pandemic last year, Florida churned out more than 24,000 student pilots.
“So, we’re probably graduating, I’d say, 60 to 80 a year,” said Presnell. “And in any given month, we’re probably flying with about 100 different people.”
Atlas Aviation now operates two flight schools, with a growing staff and fleet of planes.
It is a similar story at other general aviation airports. Students from all over the world come to Florida to train.
“There’s going to be a pilot shortage coming up here. And there’s just such a high need for pilots and that word has gotten out,” explained Hillsborough County Aviation Authority spokesperson Emily Nipps.
Experts expect a shortfall of tens of thousands of commercial pilots in the next five to 10 years. Changing federal requirements and fewer trained pilots coming out of the military are partly to blame. The rapid bounce-back from COVID-19 is also driving demand for more flights across the globe.
“Most of those guys are aging out. They have to retire at age 65, so the airlines need to replace them,” Presnell said. “But they’re also growing despite the pandemic. They do predict that they’re going to be growing more and they need pilots and those seats.”