You look down a mile-long runway that disappears into the distance. You take your toes from the brakes, and push the throttle full forward. The airplane you wear like a compact car accelerates to 40 mph 50 and the nose comes up and with three fingers of one hand, you pull back on the yoke with no more force than it takes to open a cupboard door. You are in the air. Before the seconds have stretched into a full minute, the outer marker of the runway passes about 1000 feet below you. You turn and look out over the lakes, bays and peninsulas of the Grand Traverse region. Nothing compares to this.
It is an easy generalization that anyone can learn to fly. In the Grand Traverse region, the Flight Technology program at Northwest Michigan College is the primary place to learn. Their 17 planes, 18 flight instructors, three mechanics, two dispatchers, and wide range of learning tools and alternatives make NMC an easy choice. Learning to fly takes emotional maturity, the ability to think both deeply and quickly, and the mastery of a wide range of applied sciences. The most visible barrier is money.
Nationally, earning a private pilots certificate costs about $6,000, and takes about a year. Most candidates pay about $60 per hour for instruction. Additional expenses include books, a radio communication headset, periodic medical examinations, and federal testing. For those enrolled at NMC, the billing begins with tuition of $4,044.80. Added to that are aviation expenses of $4,345 for private pilot certification. Advanced licensing for a commercial pilot endorsement at NMC costs $12,000 and another $1,600 is tacked on for a multi-engine rating. Like most successful college students, the pilots at NMC combine financial aid with part-time jobs.
Jeremiah Avery is now a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) at NMC. You have to be dedicated and focused that you are going to spend a lot of money and put in a lot of time, he said. Avery financed most of his education with student loans. He also worked at K-Mart and sold shoes before being hired by NMC Flight Technology as a member of the line crew. His duties there centered on fueling planes, and pushing and pulling them into and out of the hangar.
CFI Kyle VerBerkmoes completed his associates degree in May 2003. He is working on a bachelors degree in business. Many airlines want a four-year degree, he pointed out. VerBerkmoes paid for his education with scholarships, loans and part-time work. His previous employers included Target before he joined the flight instructors. Currently, he is responsible for six active students and puts in about 15 to 20 hours a week teaching. One of his students is Brian Wesp of Rochester Hills.
Wesp respresents one of the many non-traditional learners at NMC Flight Technology. It took him four years to complete his associates degree on weekends and other two-day-a-week schedules. Wesp now owns his own single-engines Cessna 152, which he bought from the NMC fleet. He flies here to earn a multi-engine rating, so that he can become a pilot with a freight company. I build up quite a lot of cross country time, he said, speaking of his commutes from Rochester Hills.
Ed Lamp is another non-traditional student. The 62-year-old instructor of graduate research in psychology at Bowling Green State University flies to NMC in his own plane. He has a flight instructor down in Ohio, but he comes here for the advanced training techniques that the college delivers. Lamp has held a pilots license for 40 years, but he wanted to add an instrument rating. He met NMC instructor Mike Stock at an aviation symposium in Lansing and was impressed. It is important to learn new procedures, Lamp said. It helps to come to a place that has real people who are current.
Henry DeVries is a truck driver for the Antrim County Road Commission. At 38, with a wife, a mortgage, two cars, and three kids, he is at that stage in life where most non-professional pilots give up flying. You have to have good support at home, he said. DeVries is about halfway through the curriculum with about 30 credits toward an associates and about 30 hours in the cockpit. Like most of his peers, he is paying for his education with grants, scholarships, and student loans. His flight instructor is Nick Maurer.
TWO FLYING JOBS
Maurer represents the successful traditional student at NMC Flight Technology. The 21-year-old bachelor has two flying jobs. In addition to his duties at NMC, he flies for North Country Aviation in Gaylord, a charter air service. This part-time job as first officer (co-pilot) in twin-engine craft has taken him to Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Wichita, St. Louis, and Chicago. It is not about the cash but about the flight hours, he said. The cockpit is a better office.
NMCs flight technology program also demands the best efforts of the support staff. Kevin Johnston is a dispatcher. He takes calls for general information from the public, issues log books and keys for airplanes, and assigns the flight areas for training. Dispatchers are on duty during normal business hours, seven days a week, but operations at NMC run around the clock. Summertime night flights begin about 11 p.m. because sunset is at 9:30 and you have to wait for one hour after civil sunset for night flight, Johnston explained. Line crewman Doug Laurain also fills in on the dispatch desk. If you dont find him at the airport, he might be doing it on a grill at BDs Mongolian Barbeque.
Johnston, Laurain, and the other dispatchers all report to Sheri Zimmerman, the chief dispatcher. Zimmerman has been on the NMC staff for six years and has high praise for the flight program. Teaching takes a knack for patience, she said. Everyone has different learning styles. Zimmerman schedules flights for NMC officials and staff who travel in one of the three twin-engine planes on college business. That might mean ferrying an administrator down to Lansing or taking honorees to an awards ceremony in Denver or New York City. This lets NMC flight instructors in the First Officer Program get valuable time in their logs. Zimmerman and her team coordinate the maintenance for the fleet. Every plane gets a different kind of FAA mandated inspection at 50 hours, 100 hours,
and annually. This requires constant updating of schedules, accounts, and payrolls.
CHECK IT OUT
Keeping the fleet airworthy is an ongoing process for Bill Birch, Rocky Brust, and Ed Borstel, the colleges FAA-certified mechanics. Birch said that, because NMC is a commercial flight academy, the 100-hour inspections are as thorough as the private pilots annual. This includes a compression check on the engine, oil, oil filter, spark plugs, approving the control cables, removing the wing panels and inspecting for rust, as well as lubrication of all required points, such as the brakes and bearings.
This support is a hidden cost though a direct benefit from the students point of view. It comes with the program. Nationally, only about one-third of all pilots own (or share ownership in) their own planes. A small ship for two or four passengers, new from the factory, costs about as much as a house: $100,000 to $200,000. Actual operating expenses are about $100 per hour. This includes the federally mandated inspections by a certified mechanic. Flying is expensive.
The mythology of flying is that professional pilots make a lot of money. It is true that the captains of the worlds largest passenger airlines earn up to $250,000 per year. They are a small group. Wages in aviation are no higher than for any other profession that requires a basic college degree. A pilot for a regional airline might earn no more than $50,000 a year, with $25,000 per year being more typical, because most pilots are
part-time employees. Flying freight pays less than flying passengers. Certified flight instructors earn the least of all: $7.50 to $15 per hour for 20 to 40 hours per week. Why would someone spend
tens of thousands of dollars earning certificates that can at best return a profit only after a decade of scraping by with part-time jobs?
The answer might be found in philosophical romances such as Charles Lindberghs We or Richard Bachs Stranger to the Ground, or in the biographies of aviation pioneers Bessie Davis, Beryl Markham or Amelia Earhardt. The harshest and sharpest portraits appear in The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe: a pilot is up in the air with God and the people down there (way down there!) are ants. Yet, periodic polls by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) reveal that many people learn to fly so that they can take their friends on vacations. At NMC, socializing is a big part of the experience. Everyone knows everyone well, said Jeremiah Avery. We go play basketball or hockey. It is a close knit program.
Loretta Siniff graduated from NMC 20 years ago. She worked as an instructor, flew corporate jets, and then went on to Northwest where she was a 747 captain. For Siniff, the challenge and the reward are the same thing: being able to do a difficult thing well.