15:04 PM

Local GA airports getting a major boost from pilot training boom

In many of the communities they serve, small general aviation airports go largely unnoticed. Without the buzzing of Cessnas and Pipers overhead, many residents wouldn’t even know they’re there.

But these little airports are doing more for the world of aviation than simply serving as landing pads for private jets. Those in Florida – including at Hillsborough County Aviation Authority-owned Tampa Executive, Plant City and Peter O. Knight airports – have quickly become well-established and highly reputable training grounds for student pilots from all over the world.

According to the FDOT Florida Aviation System Plan 2035 Technical Report, approximately 20 percent of the pilots throughout the world are trained in the Sunshine State. Even in 2020, a year in which the industry was greatly marred by the pandemic, more than 24,000 student pilots underwent training in Florida. That made it the most popular state for training, followed by California and Texas.

The trend isn’t new, but it’s been on a sharp upswing for the past five years. Between 2015 and 2020, the state’s estimated number of student pilot certificates held has increased by 81.4 percent.

More trained pilots is a good thing. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts to airlines and aviation-related businesses this past year and a half, a recent expert consultant study predicts a shortage of 60,000 pilots worldwide by 2029.

Schools like Global Pilot Academy, located at Tampa Executive Airport near the Florida State Fairgrounds, aim to help stop or slow that shortage by offering the only Part 141 flight school in Hillsborough County. A Part 141 school, which is rare and in high demand, is specifically approved by the FAA to ensure the highest level of training and requires a distinct structure and curriculum. Many Part 141 trainees go on to be commercial pilots.

“We are truly an international school, with students from all over the world,” Global Pilot Academy founder Bala Ballur, who started the school in 2014 with a single plane and one instructor. It now has a fleet of 22 planes and 12 full-time instructors training hundreds of students every year.

“Even during the pandemic, we still kept operations going,” Ballur said. “Some of the students had to go back to their home countries and some faced travel restrictions which made it hard to come here. But we’ve continued to grow and produce highly skilled pilots, many of whom we hire to stay here and train.”

Superior Aviation Gateway and Florida Aerospace Training Center, which also both operate at Tampa Executive, opened in more recent years and have seen business booming with customers seeking flight training and other aviation-related skills.

Superior, which opened in 2017, has provided customized training to more than 400 students, many simply wanting the unforgettable experience of learning how to fly a plane and getting a birds-eye view of the Grand Canyon or Chicago skyline or the Florida Keys.

Florida Aerospace provides avionics technology training in both English and Spanish, allowing students to do hands-on work with aircraft fuselage for the lab portion of the program. Like pilots, avionics professionals are expected to be in high demand over the next five to 10 years.

“We have been able to grow over the year, even though we started our business in the middle of a pandemic,” said Florida Aerospace CEO and President Ivelisse Rivera. “We love to support our community and spread knowledge of the wonderful world of aviation.”

Few flights schools in the area, however, have had the benefit of longevity to truly appreciate the growth of flight and aviation training interest as Atlas Aviation has.

Atlas opened for business at Peter O. Knight Airport in June 2004, then operated Merritt Island Airport’s FBO and flight school between 2006 and 2008. In March of 2019, seeing a rapid rise in demand, Atlas expanded operations at Plant City Airport.

“Initially [in the early days], we operated a fleet typical of most flight schools in the area with a handful of older, 1970s vintage Cessnas and Pipers, and we provided flight training with a varied team of flight instructors,” said Atlas Aviation Chief Pilot and Flight Instructor Dave Presnell. Over the next few years, Atlas modernized and grew its fleet, became a Cessna Pilot Center and acquired a flight simulator to enhance the flight training for its customers.

“In the past four years, we experienced tremendous growth in our operations, partly because of taking on Plant City, but also because of we invested in our fleet and our people,” Presnell said. “We increased our fleet hours from 4,100 in 2017 to a high of 6,600 in 2019. Even during the pandemic in 2020, we managed nearly 6,000 hours and are on track to do 6,200 in 2021.”

More than 40 former Atlas instructors are now professional pilots in the airlines, corporate flight departments, air ambulance providers and the military. Since opening its doors 17 years ago, more than 700 local residents have earned their pilot certifications from Atlas, and in any given month, an average of 100 pilots train with Atlas.

While all of the Tampa Bay area flight schools are proud of their contributions to the aviation industry as a whole, they considered their investment in their communities to be one of the best parts of operating out of GA airports. All three of the Aviation Authority’s airports have a significant economic impact on their surrounding neighborhoods and the region. Having international student pilots living and becoming part of these communities plays a part in that impact, said Global Pilot Academy’s Ballur.

And the GA airports’ schools and companies like to give back in various ways, too.

“We host school group tours and participate in the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles youth aviation program by donating flights to introduce the next generation of pilots to aviation,” Presnell said. “Atlas owners and employees also serve on volunteer on advisory boards to local aviation magnet school programs and the Florida Aviation Business Association. We donate Discovery Flights to dozens of local charities every year for use in their fundraising efforts.”

Dymerski added: “We are proud of the work we do, the students and community we serve, and look forward to a future of further growth and community service.”