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Careers taking flight: KEC trains future pilots

DeKALB – Ryan Yochum and Kalvin Parker knew they were taking their last flight together as they ascended into the sky over DeKalb.

In a few days, their careers would pull them to different parts of the country. Yochum, 23, will be an officer in the U.S. Air Force, reporting for duty at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio on Monday. Meanwhile Parker, 18, will venture to Stanford University, where he'll major in electric engineering.

Yochum, an instructor with Fly America, the pilot school run out of DeKalb's airport, and Parker, a student, had a connection before they began working together this summer. Both graduated from the Kishwaukee Education Consortium's aviation program, which has been teaching students about flying for a decade.

Some 40 KEC aviation students have gone on to become pilots in the past decade, aiding an aviation industry that some fear could face a severe pilot shortage in the next two decades as pilots retire and standards and costs increase.

On Tuesday, Parker flew circles over DeKalb in a Piper Warrior, a small single-engine plane, with Yochum in the passenger's seat. They climbed to 2,000 feet, soaking in the views of cornfields, homes and businesses dotting green space below.

About 15 minutes later, they landed the plane at DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport.

“That was my last one,” Yochum said, head hanging, his feet on the earth.

'I'm not a desk guy'

Yochum went through the KEC program in his junior and senior years at Rochelle Township High School, graduating in 2010. He went on to the University of Illinois, where he earned a bachelor's degree in aviation human factors along with a handful of flying certifications from the school's Aviation Institute.

He returned to the area this summer to help other would-be pilots before starting his military service piloting drones.

“I knew I couldn't do anything else,” Yochum said. “I'm not a desk guy.”

Parker, who graduated in May, also went through KEC's program his junior and senior year. He started flying lessons this summer.

"I always just really liked planes," Parker said. "Going on vacations, I enjoyed the flight as much as the place."

Although he didn't get his private pilot's license, Parker did hit a milestone with Yochum's help: flying an airplane unassisted.

“It was awesome being up there alone,” Parker said.

The number of hours flying with an instructor also in the plane before being able to soar alone can vary wildly, according to David Gillingham, who's been a Fly America instructor for three years. He's seen as little as four hours and up to 20 stand between a student and their first “solo,” as it's referred to around the hangars.

Bruce Griffith, work-based learning and special project coordinator for KEC, said students are different when they return to the ground after their first solo flight.

“They float back, because they just did something most people can't,” Griffith said.

Investing time and money

Earning a pilot's license isn't all about camaraderie and floating. It also requires a substantial investment. Gillingham tells students to budget about $9,000 to earn their private pilot license, which does not allow a pilot to charge for their services.

To earn a private pilot's license takes a minimum of 40 hours of instruction and solo time, though Gillingham said it typically takes about 55 hours.

“That does not get you a job,” Griffith said. “In order to do that, you probably need a minimum of 1,500 hours, you need a commercial license, you need an instrument license, you certainly should have a multi-engine license. You should have an airline transport pilot's license. It's an expensive investment and not knowing what the return is going to be.”

Mixed jobs reports

Although expensive, there are promising job prospects for would-be pilots, according to industry reports. Chicago-based aircraft manufacturer Boeing Co. this week projected that worldwide, the aviation industry would need 1.1 million new commercial pilots and maintenance technicians in the next 20 years.

A report this year from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found mixed evidence of an imminent worldwide pilot shortage. Although officials said employment numbers did not show evidence of a shortage, flight schools had reported lower enrollment over concerns about the cost of the program and low-paying entry-level jobs at regional airlines.

The Airline Pilots Association does not believe there's a shortage of qualified pilots, but a problem with the entry-level wages. According to the agency's pay-rate data, the average starting salary for a new co-pilot at a regional airline is $22,400, compared with the $150,000 or more a pilot might invest in earning licenses.

Griffith can recall being asked by someone with the Federal Aviation Administration if he felt he was directing students to a career that's expensive and unattainable. After circling around the answer, he finally came to one.

“No,” Griffith said. “And are we helping for that shortage? Yeah, we're putting some students in the market.”

By the numbers

• KEC aviation students who have become pilots: 40

• Number of hours required for a private pilot's license: 40

• Number of hours required to be a co-pilot on a passenger and cargo plane: 1,500 

Source: Kishwaukee Education Consortium

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