There are two kinds of aspiring pilots.
There are those whose father or uncle or cousin or friend flies planes, who’ve seen the excitement up close — either through the military or airline industry or simply for recreation. Then there are those who’ve never had any exposure to the industry, but one day decide they want an exhilarating career, one that could take them all over the world and provide adrenaline rushes day in and day out.
Lisa Deemer is among the latter. The 19-year-old from Oneonta was in her senior year of high school when she decided she would be thoroughly bored by four years of traditional college.
“I wanted something that would be fun and challenging for the next 40 years, something where I wouldn’t end up miserable after work every night,” she said.
But why fly planes? She doesn’t really know. She flew on a commercial plane in the eighth grade and briefly entertained the idea, but it seemed like too much responsibility at the time. By her senior year, though, she couldn’t get the idea out of her head.
“I kind of got hooked on the idea,” she said. “I took my first flight in January 2013, and we got to fly over my house, which was pretty cool.”
So she moved to Schenectady and began pursuing an aviation science degree through Schenectady County Community College. Since then, she’s logged about 130 hours of flight time, including memorable flights over farm fields in Montgomery County and a nighttime flight over the water in Bridgeport, Conn.
The college launched the program in 1995 to train students on the non-pilot track in airport management, aviation administration and fixed base operations. In 1997, it began offering a pilot option, as well. Today, the program trains future airline pilots, private pilots, commercial pilots, flight instructors and military pilots.
The program was possible only through a partnership with Richmor Aviation, the longtime fixed base operator at the Schenectady County Airport. Students fly Richmor’s single-engine aircraft, both solo and with an instructor, who teaches them basic flight maneuvers, takeoff and landing, night flying and cross-country procedures. The college recently renewed this partnership through August 2016, as it expects enrollment to grow amid the airline industry’s increasing cry for more pilots and air traffic controllers.
“There’s a desperate need for pilots in the aviation industry in the coming 10 years or so,” said SCCC aviation professor Barbara Jones. “Air traffic control is the same. They’re desperate. I’m expecting to see a pretty good boom in students over the years.”
The program typically boasted a few dozen students, but in recent years enrollment has risen to about 65. Only about one in 10 students is female, Jones said — hardly a surprise given the male-dominated industry.
Deemer is the only second-year female student in the program, and says people are always a little surprised to learn of her aspirations.
“Most people give a very positive and encouraging response,” she said.
Though her instructors have always been male, Deemer said it’s encouraging to see Jones running the program.
Jones is the reason the program even exists. She wanted to fly planes since the eighth grade (what is it about the eighth grade?), but the only nearby college to offer such a program was Daniel Webster College, a private, four-year school in New Hampshire that was out of her price range. So she went to Hudson Valley Community College for two years and then transferred to Daniel Webster.
Later on, while working for Richmor Aviation in Glenville, it dawned on her that the community college down the road would be the perfect place to train future pilots as a low-cost alternative to all the expensive four-year colleges offering programs.
“I said, ‘You know what? This is ridiculous,’ ” she recalled. “We have this community college right down the road and we should be doing something so people like me who can’t afford four-year schools can pursue aviation.”
Because it’s a two-year program, SCCC doesn’t offer things like turbine training or multi-engine ratings. But students who go through the program finish with their private pilot’s license, instrument rating, commercial pilot’s license and about 200 hours of flight time.
If they hope to work for an airline, they’ll need at least 1,500 hours thanks to new Federal Aviation Administration rules that require first officers hold an Airline Transport Pilot certification. Before the 2009 crash of a Continental Express regional flight, first officers needed only 250 hours and a commercial pilot certificate. Industry analysts say the new requirements, along with dismal pay and benefits offered by regional airlines, are contributing to the current pilot shortage.
Deemer plans to graduate this spring and become a certified flight instructor so she can teach and log more hours. Once she gets enough hours, she hopes to work for a small airline or charter company.
“Everyone I talk to that has been doing this forever, they still love it and they love it as much as the day that they started,” she said.
SCCC, anticipating growth in the industry, is currently seeking state approval to offer an aviation helicopter degree by next spring. Students would train with Independent Helicopters, a company that offers training, tours, aerial photography and transportation out of its locations in Ballston Spa and New Windsor.
With fewer pilots coming out of the military than in years past, the industry is looking for a new civilian pipeline. In that case, Jones hopes SCCC’s program continues to attract the “adrenaline junkies” of the world.
“It’s about 50-50 right now,” said Jones. “Many students do have that influence in aviation through a family member. But quite a few, like myself, had never stepped foot in an airplane and just said, ‘You know what, this looks really cool.’ And it is. My office in the sky is much prettier than most.”
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