Vermont Tech’s First Class of Pro Pilots

25 May 2016

It was a bluebird day for flying as Matthew Fuller piloted a single-engine Cessna 172 along the taxiway at Burlington International Airport. The 35-year-old Vergennes native was just weeks away from completing his bachelor of science degree in Vermont Technical College’s Professional Pilot Technology program. In addition to technical skills, he’s also mastered the terse radio voice of a seasoned airline pilot, evident as he radioed the control tower for permission to take off.

“After a while, it just comes naturally,” he said with a smile.

[This article was originally published in Seven Days.]

Our single-engine propeller plane felt puny as Fuller steered us onto BTV’s huge runway, blackened by the skid marks of countless arriving F-16 fighter jets and commercial airliners. Still, I wasn’t the least bit nervous that my pilot was a student. Just weeks earlier, Fuller had traveled to the Pam Am International Flight Academy in Miami, Fla., to earn his type rating as a captain on the Airbus A320. That means, in the eyes of the Federal Aviation Administration, he’s got the technical proficiency, if not the flight hours yet that most airlines require, to fly the JetBlue plane waiting behind us to take off.

“Flying down to Florida, I spoke to every single pilot down the way. I must have been the most annoying kid ever,” Fuller said, once the Cessna had lifted off and banked left over the Burlington waterfront. “They all said the same thing to me: We are hurting for pilots.”

That’s welcome news to Fuller and the 10 others who graduated last weekend from the new Vermont Tech program — the only such program in Vermont and one of only a handful of collegiate flight programs in New England. In an era when many graduating seniors have no idea whether they’ll find any work upon graduation, Vermont Tech’s inaugural class of professional pilots is entering the job market at one of the most opportune times in years. After more than a decade of stagnant growth in the worldwide airline industry, commercial carriers are making money again, expanding their fleets and opening new routes, driven by a combination of burgeoning consumer demand and low fuel prices.

Why the severe pilot shortage? Brian Dubie, Vermont’s former lieutenant governor and a 30-year veteran pilot with American Airlines, explained that in recent years, the U.S. military has been steadily reducing its pilot pool. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of commercial pilots who held onto their jobs through what Dubie called the airline industry’s “lost decade” — 2001 to 2012 — are now nearing the FAA’s mandatory retirement age of 65.

As a consequence, the airline industry is in desperate need of replacing them. In 2014, aerospace giant Boeing predicted that, over the next 20 years, the industry will need more than half a million new pilots worldwide, or about 27,000 new ones annually.

The Vermont Tech program took off at just the right time to begin filling that need. Each member of the inaugural class has already landed a good job, and another 50 to 60 new aviation students are in the queue behind them. As professor Robin Guillian puts it, their flight path to high-paying careers has never been clearer.

“It’s a great time to be in aviation,” Guillian explained during an interview at Vermont Tech’s Williston campus. “We have brand-new airplanes doing really cool stuff, and they’re safer than ever. We’re upgrading our air-traffic control system, which is already the safest in the world.”

VTC’s Professional Pilot Technology program was founded in 2012 by program director Doug Smith, a self-described “space brat” from Houston, Texas, who’s been flying since he was 7 years old. (He’s now 67.) Smith, who’s flown aircraft carrying everything from mailbags to Montana smoke jumpers, worked most recently as a pilot for Air India before coming to Vermont to cofound the Vermont Flight Academy in 2009.

From the get-go, Smith knew that the flight school had to be FAA-certified and affiliated with a local college or university in order to ensure a steady stream of students and thus its long-term financial viability. While still flying for Air India, Smith wrote all 30 aviation courses that make up the bachelor’s degree program.

“A lot of colleges [with aviation programs] do a pretty good job, but none of them do what we do,” boasted Smith, who had previously served as chief flight instructor and examiner at Auburn University’s Aviation Center before being hired away by Delta. He flew for the “legacy” carrier for decades until just before it declared bankruptcy in 2005.

In aviation, Smith explained, pilots can climb the career ladder and expand their employment opportunities by earning different FAA certificates, ratings and endorsements. Many collegiate flight programs around the country offer just three or four endorsements, Smith said; Vermont Tech offers nine, including those for flying aerobatic planes and multiengine seaplanes, as well as three different flight-instructor ratings. In fact, many Vermont Tech students work as certified flight instructors during their senior year to gain additional experience and flying hours.

Dubie, who founded and still chairs the Vermont Aerospace and Aviation Association, wasn’t involved in creating Vermont Tech’s pilot program, but he’s known Smith for years. He said he’s been “really impressed” with the cadre of instructors that Smith attracted to teach the program, among them former military pilots and civil aviators.

The latter group includes Guillian, Vermont Tech’s sole full-time professor and a flight instructor, who flew for Aloha Airlines in Hawaii for years before joining Vermont Tech’s faculty last fall.

Guillian said that incoming students who assume they can coast through the program on autopilot are setting themselves up for a hard landing. The program consists of a rigorous and time-consuming course load that includes plenty of math and science. Students take classes on such topics as human risk management, international navigation, meteorology and airline operations, while simultaneously getting certified on the use of aircraft instrumentation and earning their private and commercial pilot’s licenses. They even get their hands dirty learning aircraft maintenance. As Fuller concluded, “It showed us we don’t want to be mechanics.”

And, of course, students are flying as often as possible, Guillian said — at least three to five times a week — as well as spending time on one of Vermont Tech’s two flight simulators. In fact, incoming students pilot a plane their first week of class.

Learning to fly in the Burlington area has both advantages and challenges, Guillian said. Though Vermont’s airspace is less crowded than those in bigger metropolitan areas, Vermont’s winter weather can limit flight time and present unique learning opportunities. Student pilots aren’t allowed to fly in severely adverse weather, such as freezing rain, high crosswinds and fog. But Guillian said it’s important that her students get exposed to a diversity of weather conditions and topography, which Vermont offers.

The latter also includes BTV’s proximity to an international border, she added, which instills in her students an acute awareness of their bearing at all times.

“Most people think of the border as an hour up the road [from Burlington],” she noted. “Not for us. It’s 20 minutes, and you’d better know where it is, or you’ll be intercepted” by U.S. or Canadian air defenses.

Due to the considerable time demands put on Vermont Tech’s aviation students, Guillian said that many students spend their breaks and summer vacations in Burlington in order to log more flight time. As she put it, “It really, really has to be for you, to want to make that kind of commitment and be able to handle the workload.”

That said, by the time students graduate, Guillian noted, they will have flown at least 10 different aircraft including a multiengine seaplane, which is rare in collegiate flight programs.

“I know airline pilots who don’t have their seaplane [certification],” said Fuller. “They’ll see that I do and say, ‘You, sir, are flying something I’ve never been in.’ That’s really cool to hear from somebody with 15,000 [flight] hours.”

And, though the coursework is demanding, “The flying makes it all worth it,” said recent graduate Jamie Heiam, who spent five years in the U.S. Coast Guard before completing Vermont Tech’s pilot program this spring. (She used her Veterans Administration benefits to pay her tuition.) The 34-year-old said that some of the best moments of her life have been spent flying at Vermont Tech, like when she flew solo for the first time, a feeling she likened to “being on top of the world.”

Professional flight training is not for everyone, of course, and natural smarts will only carry students so far in the program.

“The No. 1 thing you absolutely need is drive,” Fuller said. “If you’re the type of student who’s half-assed about attending class, don’t do all the homework and are only vaguely interested, that’s not gonna fly.”

Graduate Garrett Tilton, from Grantham, N.H., agreed. He pointed out that the combined expenses of tuition, FAA certifications and flight hours means that a four-year aviation degree from Vermont Tech can quickly add up to at least $100,000. “If you’re going to come here and not try your best to be one of those top five students,” he said, “then you’re wasting your time.”

All of Vermont Tech’s students graduate with a four-year degree as well as the skills needed for careers as professional airline pilots. Among the most coveted and highest-paying jobs, Guillian said, are with legacy carriers such as American, United and Delta, whose starting salaries begin in the $50,000 to $60,000 range. Over a pilot’s career, she said, the major airlines will contribute as much as $4 million into a pilot’s 401(k) retirement fund. Understandably, those are competitive slots and usually require a stint with a regional carrier first. But Guillian insisted that all her graduating students are qualified to land those positions.

That said, she pointed out that there are “gateways and pathways” to other aviation careers, such as piloting aircraft for federal or state governments, corporate fleets, and even the military.

While still a student, Heiam flew the State of Vermont’s official airplane, which occasionally transports the governor. During her summer breaks, she also piloted surveillance aircraft for the U.S. Forest Service as they scouted the national forests for diseased trees. Heiam, who was certified as a flight instructor in her junior year, is staying on at Vermont Tech to teach classes next fall.

As for Tilton, he got a job in Lebanon, N.H., flying corporate planes for an insurance company well before graduation. “It started as an internship, and they needed a sixth pilot,” said the 22-year-old. “Now I’m a contract pilot for them.”

Being so new, Vermont Tech’s pilot program has just 50 to 60 students, but it’s likely to grow in the coming years. Smith said he hopes to eventually expand the offerings to include aviation management, dispatching and maintenance. All of those fields will be in high demand, he said, and can also serve as backup careers for pilots in the event that a medical condition grounds them from flying professionally.

“We’re still small,” Smith said, “but we get the kind of people who really want to be here. And, when they graduate, they’ll have incredible credentials.”

That much was obvious as Fuller piloted us back to Burlington International, gently eased the Cessna down on the runway, then taxied back to the flight school. Once he’d cut the engine, Guillian, who was waiting for us on the tarmac, opened my door and asked how the flight went.

“Great,” I told her.

“That’s one of the best things about being a flight instructor,” she said. “You get people at the best part of their day.”