Kevin Czarnecki grew up in an aviation family.
“As I got older, it was one of my more realistic goals as a career,” he said.
He started at McAir Aviation flight school in 2018 after he graduated from Thornton’s Horizon High School and has now 300 flying hours under his belt. He hopes to be a flight instructor by this summer, with the goal of being a full-time pilot for a commercial airline at some point in his career.
“My immediate goal after (being a flight instructor) is to go to SkyWest, fly with my dad at least once and then eventually move up into one of the bigger airlines,” he said.
McAir Aviation is one of three flight schools at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport hoping to chip away at the demand for commercial airline pilots.
Flight schools across the country play a crucial role in teaching and training future pilots for commercial airlines. According to the Regional Airline Association’s 2022 annual report, 50% of today’s Part 121 qualified pilot workforce – commercial airline pilots – must retire in 15 years, and 13% must retire in five years.
In the next 20 years, demand for new commercial aviation pilots stands at a whopping 602,000 new pilots, according to the Boeing Pilot and Technician Outlook.
Todd Cellini, Chief Operations Officer at McAir Aviation, said they send about six flight instructors to regional airlines or commercial airlines to become pilots per month.
“It’s just a consistent funnel to help the aviation industry as a whole,” Cellini said.
Joanne Damato, senior vice president of education, training and workforce development for the National Business Aviation Association, said a large number of pilots retired in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as demand for flying went down. Airlines began offering early retirement offers due to having too many pilots for too few flights.
“We knew that a number of those pilots were going to be reaching retirement age. We also know that a number of them accepted the early retirement offerings as a result of the pandemic,” said Damato.
Add in the effect of an increase in logged training hours that was approved by Congress more than a decade ago, which already made it tougher for airlines to find pilots.
“The congressional 1,500 hour rule made things more formal and established a hard floor that you’ve got to get to,” said Damato.
It all led to a domino effect that continued all the way down to the flight instruction schools, causing a backlog of students waiting for flight instructors.
Industry experts speculated that the industry wouldn’t be able to recover after COVID, but that was wrong. According to Marli Collier, a spokesperson for Airlines for America, demand for flying is back to 2019 levels.
“Travel demand is close—but not quite—at 2019 levels. In January 2023, TSA passenger throughput was only 1% below January 2019,” she wrote in an email.
However, even if the pandemic didn’t happen, the search for pilots would still be difficult.
“The fact of the matter is, it takes a really long time for someone to go from their first flight to being employable as a professional pilot,” Damato said.
Paths to flying
There are multiple paths to becoming a pilot, with flight schools serving as just one. But it all comes down to earning hours.
“The cost to become a pilot who is employable you’re probably putting about $100,000 into yourself and what you need to do to get there and then you have to be very patient to get hired,” Damato said.
For some, attending a four-year college or university that offers a formal program works for them, while others may attend college but still earn their hours at their local airport. Some opt to go into the military.
Flight schools offer more flexibility and financing plans. For Czarnecki, he didn’t attend college but worked part-time jobs while attending flight school. He’s a commercially rated pilot now — meaning he can earn money for flying — and hopes to move onto a regional airline after teaching, and then onto one of the bigger airlines.
The schools also give those who want to fly just for fun an opportunity, too. Elena Burns started flight school training in June 2022 and works full-time for an IT consulting firm. In 2017, she gave her ex-boyfriend a discovery flight for his birthday, but she was the one who got hooked on it.
“It was just a whole new experience. I thought it was really cool to be able to see everything that was going on,” she said.
Burns said it’s a hobby — for now.
“I don’t know if it’ll eventually turn into a career or not, but it’s definitely something where I want to get the most experience that I can,” she said.
Greg Boom, owner and president of Rocky Mountain Flight School, started flying in 1982 and said the industry changed a lot since then, both in terms of technology and who’s flying. He said back when he started, not many people thought of aviation as a career path.
With a bigger push to advertise the option, it’s changing. Getting more pilots, education about aviation jobs and helping people realize it’s an option helps. Damato sees guidance counselors at school playing a role, and so does Cellini.
Cellini noted that Jefferson County has done outreach in schools and across the county through tours of the airport and education on the topic. He also sees a need to diversify the field.
“We need to expand that scope to women who want to be pilots, to minority populations who want to be pilots,” he said.
One of those people who is a result of the county’s outreach is Grace Tomasko, an 11th grader at Jefferson Academy. She’s working as an intern for the airport for school credit.
Her goal is to earn a private pilot’s license. She wanted to explore the industry by learning about the role aviation played in World War I and II.
“It’s just really cool being in control of the airplane. You’re flying 1000s of feet in the air and just see the world from a different perspective,” Czarnecki said.