The sky over Coraopolis will be filled with stunt-performing airplanes this weekend when the 911th Airlift Wing’s "Wings Over Pittsburgh" event returns after a six-year hiatus. But with increasing demand for pilots and aviation technicians, the showcase is about more than demonstrating the region’s flight talent.
Maj. Charlie Baker, chief of air crew training with the 911th Airlift Wing, organized the open house and said he remembers going to the same show as a child, growing up in Robinson.
“There’s a recruitment effort that goes on,” Baker said. “It’s neat to meet somebody that went to your high school, possibly, and went on to do all these cool things and know that’s available to you.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are about 128,570 aircraft mechanics and 81,520 pilots, copilots and flight engineers. Technician jobs are expected to grow by a little more than 1 percent, and pilot jobs are projected to increase by about 5 percent.
Stephen Sabold, director of admissions at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, or PIA, said the numbers may seem small, but projected retirements are paving the way for a large increase in demand. PIA specializes in training people to become certified Air Frame and Power Plant technicians and Sabold said the school’s graduation placement rate is very high.
“From our recent graduating class, over 50 percent of our graduates have already decided where they’re going to work as they walk across the stage,” Sabold said. “There’s a huge demand.”
Baker said Wings Over Pittsburgh will have representatives from schools like PIA and other technical training academies to expose potential students to the trade he said isn’t as visible.
“Many of the planes out there have multiple crew positions,” Baker said. “When you look at one of our C-130s, for every hour we spend flying it, you should see the amount of manpower that goes into it insofar as hours of work and maintenance.”
Convincing young men and women to go into the trade can be difficult, Sabold said, especially since many students are used to the idea of a four-year college education.
“There’s just less exposure to hands-on type of trades,” Sabold said. “But I think that’s the important thing is you don’t have to necessarily go in that four year route—not everybody is interested in working in a cubicle.”
PIA technicians typically spend about 16 to 21 months in school. Sabold said right now, 150 students are enrolled.
Pittsburgh Flight Training Center general manager Frank Beresnyak said he can’t keep flight instructors to train new students for more than eight months.
“Back in the day, it could be two years. The guy who flight instructed me in the early '90s, it could take up to five years to build that time in flight instructing,” Beresnyak said. “It’s getting to the point where we don’t have enough pilots.”
In the aviation community, there is debate over the validity of the “pilot shortage.” Still, Beresnyak said from his perspective, in western Pennsylvania, it seems like carriers are recruiting earlier and more often than in previous years.
“That was never the norm in this industry,” Beresnyak said. “They’re offering all kinds of crazy incentives.”
Pittsburgh has a strong history of aviation, with the first military and commercial airports built in the 1940s. Since then, Beresnyak said the region’s aviation culture has declined, especially after U.S. Airlines left as a hub at Pittsburgh International Airport beginning in the early 2000s, taking a lot of aviation employees with them.
Among performances by the Geicko Skytypers and U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, Baker said he hopes onlookers consider what goes into aviation, and how they might someday be a part of it.