The aviation industry in Florida generates about $5 billion in revenue each year, and $3.1 million is spent on flight training in South Florida alone, according to the Better Transportation Web site. And again, Florida flight schools are enduring public scrutiny since 15-year-old Charles Bishop flew a plane into a skyscraper in downtown Tampa earlier this month.
Including the Sept. 11 attacks, this is the second blow to Florida flight schools this year. Local schools such as National Aviation, from which Bishop took off without permission, and Tampa Flying Service Inc. said they saw a definite decrease in sales after the attack on America, in part because they were required to shut down for a number of weeks. Scott Tollock, general manager for Tampa Flying Service, said in the month of September, his school made exactly half the money compared to previous months in flight training. However, both schools say they have seen business pick up again.
“It did have a significant impact, but it was short-lived,” Tollock said. “It was just a matter of waiting.”
However, Angela Lankford, director for Tampa North Flight Center, said she has seen an increase in both revenue and interest in learning how to fly.
“Maybe people are finally trying to realize it’s safer to fly yourself,” she said.
None of the flight schools believed Bishop’s suicide would further impact aviation training. Lankford compared the situation to someone who would commit suicide in a car, noting that such an instance wouldn’t affect the automobile industry. “It was just a way for him to get the results,” Lankford said.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Federal Aviation Administration attempted issuing stricter rules concerning the aviation industry. Robert Cooper, president and owner of National Aviation, said he didn’t think the rules were necessary.
“It was an overreaction, in our opinion, but they did what they thought they had to do,” he said.
Bishop’s suicide also prompted a list of suggestions from the FAA for preventing a similar accident, but Cooper said he didn’t think they would make a difference.
“What stricter rules could they have that would have prevented this?” Cooper said. “In terms of preventing an accident as we had (Jan. 5), it’s not going to matter.”
National Aviation was investigated after the suicide by a number of departments, and Cooper said the FAA told him his flight school had its act together. USF senior Nikolas Ziehe, dispatcher for National Aviation, said their security procedures have been reviewed before and after the accident.
“There was nothing that could have been changed to prevent what he did,” Ziehe said. “It was a breach of trust.”
Tollock said he felt that after the suicide there would be more regulations but only received the suggestions. He said he felt confident in his security procedures and felt he does everything possible regarding safety.
People of all ages come to flight schools to learn how to fly. From preteens to the retired, anyone can learn. However, FAA regulations require a pilot to be 16 in order to fly alone and 17 before obtaining a pilot’s license. Ziehe said he sees different types of people who come in wanting to learn, such as teachers, business people, moms and children who are being rewarded for good grades in school.
“There are people from all walks of life,” Ziehe said. “There’s not really a specific profile you can put on a student pilot. There’s one common bond – the love for aviation.”
Tollock said his students generally fit into three categories: flyers who learn to fly for recreation, flyers who use airplanes for business and flyers who want to make a living from piloting.
Although the first two groups were not affected, Tollock said the career-flyers have pretty much disappeared for now.
“They’re correct in the short term, because the airlines haven’t resumed hiring,” he said.
The Lessons and the Rules
Obtaining a pilot’s license costs between $4,000- $5,000. The FAA regulates every aspect of the aviation industry.
One regulation is the flight instructor’s discretion whether a student is ready to master an additional skill, such as solo flying or landing, and they follow guidelines. Ziehe said often the instructor will know before a student if he or she is ready to move to the next step.
“An instructor is never going to put a student in a situation they’ve never learned without teaching the necessary skills first,” Ziehe said.
Students are also required to watch presentations regarding aspects of flying, such as the controls, the anatomy of the plane and how to steer the plane. Quizzes are given at the end of each lesson.
Although there is not a set number of hours before a student can fly solo – the average is about 15 – it’s the instructor’s ultimate decision.
There are two major components of obtaining a pilot’s license: the flight portion and a written exam, both of which are conducted by the FAA.
National Aviation provides “discovery flights,” during which an interested person flies in a plane with the instructor to get a feel for the experience of flying.
Before buckling up and taking off for any flight, however, students are required to do a preflight inspection, with a checklist in hand and the flight instructor observing nearby. Students are required to ensure parts of the plane move properly, check the fuel quantity and for water in the fuel (which will stall the engine) and air pressure in the tires. After every 50 flight hours, each plane has a full inspection, not performed by the student.
After checking the cabin, a student performs a walk-around of the plane to ensure not even a small light is broken.
“You don’t want a plane that has any bad parts on it,” Ziehe said.
After buckling the seatbelt, weather reports, updated each hour, transmit through headphones. From every section on the ground, a plane needs confirmation from a separate dispatcher before moving into a different area.
While on the ground, the plane is entirely steered by floor pedals. The two seats in a Cessna airplane, the most popular plane flown by students, both contain a steering wheel and pedals for steering.
After confirmation from the dispatch tower, the plane is ready for takeoff.
The altitude at which the plane flies depends on the individual’s purpose. For sightseeing, Ziehe said 1,500 feet is average. Although there is a minimum of 1,000 feet, a pilot must also be able to make a safe landing at any altitude.
While flying, it is suggested to use only one hand to steer. Little pressure is needed to steer, and turning is easier than in a car.
“The physical act of driving an airplane is easier than the physical act of driving a car,” Cooper said. “What’s hard is a ton of other stuff you have to learn.”
A screen in the cabin shows the plane’s position at any time. Below is a radio that is used to dial different frequencies for different airports. Prior to entering a different air space, the pilot must call the corresponding airport for clearance. The dispatcher also tells the pilot ahead of time what he or she should do.
“You always want to think a couple steps ahead,” Ziehe said, in case of an emergency.
Before landing, four lights indicate whether a pilot is flying too close or too high for a landing. Two white lights and two red lights indicate a perfect height, but too many white lights mean a pilot is too high; too many red lights mean a pilot is too low.
After receiving permission from the dispatcher, the pilot is ready to land. Afterward, three yellow rectangles direct where the wheels of the plane should be parked, and the final step before leaving the plane is tying it to the ground at three areas: the tail and two locations off the wings.
Cooper said the average 16-year-old is better prepared to fly solo than he or she is to take a driving test.
“You can’t compare driver’s education to pilot training,” Cooper said. “If all drivers had to have equivalent training, traffic accidents would be slashed 80 percent.”
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