LU School of Aeronautics preparing future aviators during pilot shortage

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LYNCHBURG, Va. (WDBJ7) On any given day, 1.73 million Americans fly somewhere in the U.S. But what if there weren't enough pilots to get us to and from our destination?

“So there is a big need for pilots and mechanics, and it’s an exciting time to be in the aviation industry,” said Jim Molloy, dean of the School of Aeronautics at Liberty University.

617,000 new pilots, 679,000 mechanics and 800,000 flight attendants to be more specific. That’s what the latest industry forecast expects to need over the next 20 years.

In addition to the need for new people in the industry, Molloy said the United States does not have the training capacity to fulfill those needs. And it’s not just commercial aviation, the military is also short pilots. Molloy says the Air Force is down 800 pilots this year.

So it is an exciting time for new and prospective aviators. But we asked, why such a drastic need? Turns out, it’s a combination of a few things.

“We’re coming up on a big retirement period for the airlines, and there are some major airlines like United and Delta, some of those major airlines, where the next few years, over 50 percent of their pilots will retire. And so they need to be replaced,” Molloy said.

After 9/11, there was a down turn, and after the recession there was another down turn, which meant limited hiring at that time.

But now, the economy is on an upswing, the number of aircraft being built and the number of flights increased, which created another need for pilots, like recent grad, Kaitlyn Allen.

“I always wanted to travel. I have a love for you know, adventure, and finding new things and seeing new things,” Allen said.

Allen interned with United over the summer. She starts as a flight instructor at Liberty on Thursday, where she’ll be able to log enough flight hours to eventually be hired as a commercial pilot.

“We know we have to start with the regionals, and it’s good because our next step is hiring right now. So it’s better for us. If the majors were hiring but the regionals weren’t, that’d be worse for us. Even though the majors are kind of stagnant in the hiring, we know in the next few years they won’t be,” Allen said.

In a statement to WDBJ7, Airlines for America, the airline trade group based in Washington, D.C., said: “We expect that the major commercial airlines will remain appropriately staffed and are not expecting any shortage. In fact, commercial airlines continue to attract quality candidates for our openings - including pilots - because we offer well-paying jobs with good benefits. Several of our members are hiring, and the market remains competitive.”

“They’re (airlines) eager to sign up students that are highly qualified and demonstrate the leadership and professionalism that they want to have,” Molloy said.

But Molloy says we’re already seeing effects in airports across the country, with some flights cancelled because of a lack of pilots. He says it’s something the industry is working on, trying to get more youth interested with programs starting in middle and high school.

They’re doing their part at the School of Aeronautics as well. Liberty University bought New London airport last year. Student pilots are given great opportunities with major airlines, who have representatives at the school frequently.

The School of Aeronautics started in 2002 with four students and one rented airplane. Now, there are about 450 students, 28 aircrafts, and a new unmanned aerial system, or drone, program.

The school is accredited by the FAA to offer a reduced airline transport pilot license, restricted airport license, which cuts the required hours from 1,500 to 1,000 before pilots are eligible to work for the airlines.