By Isaac Bonnell
Bellingham may not have the biggest or busiest airport in the region, but there certainly isn’t a shortage of pilots in Whatcom County.
“Whatcom County is a fairly aviation-savvy community,” said Jeff Eriksen, chief flight instructor for Bellingham Aviation Services (BAS).
There is, however, a shortage of aviation jobs.
The aviation sector as a whole has been hit hard by the recession: Fluctuating fuel prices have caused major turbulence to the airline business model, people are flying less, and financing the purchase of large planes has become more difficult.
But these dire times haven’t kept people from learning to fly, Eriksen said. In July, the company added two planes — a four-seat Cessna 172 and a two-seat Diamond DA20 — to meet the rising demand for rental planes and increasing enrollment in its flight school.
Enrollment has been steadily climbing the last three years and even though there aren’t many pilot jobs available right now, this is a good time to learn to fly or earn more certifications, Eriksen said.
“This is a down time for aviation, but if you’re investing in your training and credentials you will be well-poised to take advantage of the market when it picks up,” he said. “By nature, aviation is a pretty cyclical industry and this could be a pretty lengthy down part of the cycle.”
Not everyone in flight school is aiming to be a professional pilot, though. Half of the students are learning to fly for recreation, Eriksen said.
“However, someone may learn to fly and may not expect to be paid to fly but still intend to use it for business purposes,” he said. “There’s a certain romantic element to it, which means there will always be someone who will fly for free.”
For most new pilots, the job market is pretty slim and what few jobs are open usually require a lot of certification. Thus, most new pilots start as a flight instructor and slowly build up their number of hours in the air.
“So it’s kind of like the blind teaching the blind,” Eriksen said. “We’re unique compared to other flight schools in that our instructors are experienced, not just freshly minted flight instructors.”
Since aviation is a fairly small industry, networking is key to landing a full-time flying job, Eriksen said. But it’s not going to come without some perseverance.
“For a newly minted pilot, you may need to live a fairly transient life for a while,” he said. “It may mean eating a lot of ramen for a couple years to build up your reputation as a safe pilot.”
‘The Toyota Camry of planes’
For most beginning pilots, a Cessna 172 Skyhawk is their first key to the clouds. More Skyhawks have been built than any other aircraft: 43,000 of them have been built since 1956 and the plane is still in production.
“In any one category, the 172 won’t come out on top. But when you count all the beans, it’s a good plane to train in,” Eriksen said. “It’s the Toyota Camry of planes.”
If the Cessna 172 is the Camry of planes, then the Diamond DA20 is the Mazda Miata. It’s not the fastest craft in the air, but it’s light and agile. With just two seats and a bubble canopy, it’s a sporty addition to the BAS fleet.
“In adding aircraft, we’re trying to give people more choices,” Eriksen said. “And with these other two aircraft, our hours in the air have already increased 40 percent compared to the first two quarters of last year.”
Summer is prime flying season in the Pacific Northwest, especially for small aircraft. Sunshine and light winds are much more pleasant than the usual low clouds and rain. Visibility is a key factor in determining whether to fly or not, so cloudy days can be a challenge for beginning pilots.
“Up here you might be a bit more weather savvy and have some ‘no-go’ decisions to make,” Eriksen said. “I like exposing students to this decision-making process, but as an instructor, there is no way I can expose them to every situation. I’ve flown for about 3,000 hours and there are still situations that I’ve never encountered before.”
With all of its geographic intricacies and varied weather patterns, the Puget Sound region makes a great place to train pilots, Eriksen said. And the more flight scenarios that a young pilot experiences, the better.
“Flying is not rocket science, but it’s unforgiving of mistakes,” he said.
Flying vs. the ferry
At any one time, there are at least several small aircraft flying over the San Juan Islands. And chances are that one of them is from Bellingham.
Flying is an essential part of living and doing business on the islands, almost more so than having a boat. For Brian Wellman of Bellingham-based Wellman & Zuck Construction, flying has enabled him to successfully expand his business to the San Juans. The company established an office in Friday Harbor four years ago, and Wellman flies out there twice a week.
“I wouldn’t build in the islands if I couldn’t fly,” he said. “It just doesn’t work to take a boat. You can spend half a day just getting to the job site.”
Instead of taking the ferry out of Anacortes, Wellman simply hops aboard a small Cessna operated by NW Sky Ferry and within 20 minutes he’s out at the second office. For NW Sky Ferry owner Skip Jansen, this is precisely the type of market he hopes will expand.
“There’s a niche we can fill for people who want to go from Seattle or Bellingham to the islands,” Jansen said. “As airlines get more regulation and security checks, people are going to move to this type of travel.”
Business people like Wellman make up about 70 percent of the travelers flying with NW Sky Ferry, said pilot Bob Therkelsen. This Bellingham-based charter company operates three planes and offers flights to the San Juan Islands and beyond.
“We’ll fly anywhere you want to go, but beyond Portland it gets a little expensive,” Therkelsen said.
Another benefit of flying is that NW Sky Ferry can land on most of the islands that don’t have ferry service. Only Blakely, Lopez and San Juan Island have paved runways — the rest are remote airstrips.
“Most of them are grass or gravel fields, but it’s easy to get in and out of there with a small plane,” Therkelsen said.
Before coming to NW Sky Ferry, Therkelsen spent five years flying for Memphis-based Pinnacle Airlines. He would often work 14-hour shifts, five days in a row, and spend many nights in a hotel room far away from his home in Anacortes.
“It was pretty grueling,” he said. “If you’re young and footloose, the lifestyle can be fun, but if you have a family life and a home life, then it’s pretty difficult.”
Large commercial airlines dominate the market for pilots, but most communities around the country still have small charter companies like NW Sky Ferry to take travelers to destinations not served by the larger airlines, Therkelsen said. The pay and prestige of flying a Cessna 172 may not equal that of flying a Boeing 737, but the lifestyle is much easier.
“Here it’s different because I’m going home to my own bed every night,” Therkelsen said.