Pilot training takes off at Unity airport

Joe Napsha
| Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

David Helfrich of Latrobe enjoys flying planes so much — like taking a trip to Ohio to see his brother — he wants to take it to another level. He wants to become certified to fly by relying on a plane's instruments, not just by what he can see.

In order to do that, Helfrich, a supervisor at Latrobe Specialty Metals in Latrobe, is undergoing flight instruction at Westmoreland Aviation's training school at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Unity.

He's among a growing group of 60 people who are pilots and prospective pilots training at Westmoreland Aviation's flight school. The increase in demand for flight training instruction has taken off, prompting Westmoreland Aviation to buy the building it is leasing and to expand by building another facility.

“We are growing so fast,” said David Castaldo, president of Westmoreland Aviation, a flight instruction school operated by Westmoreland Aviation Holding Co. of Murrysville.

There were only six students in the flight training class when Westmoreland Aviation took over the business and hangar from financially troubled Fly Wright Center in 2009, said Castaldo, who had taken pilot training classes from Fly Wright. Castaldo bought the business in partnership with J.T. Spangler, owner of ITSEnclosures of East Huntingdon.

The school has been enrolling more students through its partnership over the past three years with Westmoreland County Community College near Youngwood. Students undergo a 12-week course in ground school instruction classes taught by the school's flight instructors.

The former state police hangar lacks appropriate accommodations for a classroom, Castaldo said, so Westmoreland Aviation uses the airport authority boardroom in the airport terminal. Its classes typically host between 15 and 17 students.

To accommodate the growth in enrollment, Westmoreland Aviation wants to construct a 125-by-50-foot building to house its offices and space for classrooms large enough for 30 students. The project will cost about $300,000, and the company will handle finances for the construction, Castaldo said.

Castaldo, who was a chief financial officer and chief executive officer of a Pittsburgh turnaround company before taking over the flight instruction school, hopes to have the new building finished by the end of 2014.

Westmoreland Aviation has moved on its plans by reaching an agreement with the Westmoreland County Airport Authority in December to acquire its hangar for $165,000, as well as additional property that will allow it to expand operations at the airport. The company had been leasing the hangar from the airport authority.

The closing on the property and a land-lease agreement for additional space for a new structure have not been finalized, but that likely will occur in a few months, said Gabe Monzo, airport executive director.

Bright job market

Those who earn their pilot's license can move into a job market that has a bright future, Castaldo said.

More pilots will be needed to fill the vacancies that will be created by the retirement of an older generation of pilots, he said.

“There's a big bubble that will burst pretty soon,” Castaldo said.

His assessment is supported by Chicago-based Boeing Co., the world's largest aerospace company.

Approximately 1 million new commercial airline pilots and maintenance technicians will be needed worldwide by 2031, including 460,000 new commercial airline pilots, according to the 2012 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook.

The Asia Pacific region continues to present the largest projected growth in pilot demand, with a need for 185,600 new pilots by 2031, Boeing said. China has the largest demand within that region, with a need for 71,300 pilots. North America will need 69,000 pilots over the next 18 years, while Latin America will need 42,000 pilots, Boeing said.

The median pay for airline and commercial pilots is $92,060, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Handbook for 2012. The bureau said there were 103,500 pilots in the United States in 2010 and projects that the average growth rate for those pilot jobs for the next seven years will be 11 percent, which is about 11,000.

‘A lot to learn'

The training the students undergo at Westmoreland Aviation will enable them to become pilots for corporations or individual plane owners, Castaldo said.

To acquire their pilot's license, students need to pass a 60-question knowledge test and take flying lessons with a certified flight instructor for a minimum of 40 hours, as required by the Federal Aviation Administration, Castaldo said. Most student pilots, however, take an average of 55 hours of flight training, he said.

Westmoreland Aviation, which has 15 members in its new Westmoreland Aviators flying club, has five airplanes for the students to use. Its 4,800-square-foot hangar is large enough to fit only three of its five planes, so it must store its other two at hangars at the airport, he said.

One of those hoping to become a corporate pilot is Chelsea McChesney, 22, of Greensburg, one of seven certified flight instructors at Westmoreland Aviation. McChesney, who has been flying since she was 16, wants to become a pilot for Southwest Airlines.

For David Blackmore, 51, of Murrysville, who is learning to fly at Westmoreland Aviation, a pilot's license will give the electrician another option for his career.

By learning to fly, Blackmore said, “I can pick where I want to work.”

He said he wants to be a corporate pilot some day but is not in any hurry. “I'm taking it cautiously. There's a lot to learn,” Blackmore said.

Like police work

One student who needs a new career is Matt Livingstone, 33, of Penn Township, who was a police officer for 10 years.

He has been forced to change careers because he was seriously wounded in April 2005 while working for the Forest Hills Police Department. A man shot him in the arm, and the bullet caused further damage when it entered his chest.

“I found a good fit. I'm taking a step forward to a new career. This school really does a lot for me,” said Livingstone, who wants to be a certified flight instructor.

In his previous career as a police officer, he said he never had time to learn to fly.

Livingstone sees a lot of similarities in police work and flying a plane.

“You resolve yourself to taking a risk,” he said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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