Dreams in motion

July 1, 2000

The Florida buildups tossed our little craft like the proverbial cork in the ocean. It was day three of a round-robin business trip I had planned for the east coast of the Sunshine State. Thanks to the efficient brand-new Mooney Eagle, we had hit four airports and six appointments in the previous two days up and down Florida's east coast from Vero Beach to Miami—try that in an automobile or by commercial carrier.

The swift Eagle had carried us from an update on the Piper Malibu Meridian at Vero Beach to a review of the expansion plans by Galaxy Aviation at Palm Beach International. Look for a major renovation and expansion of the FBO over the next year or so—one that is particularly friendly to lighter GA aircraft on what has become an airport ruled by the airlines and business jets. A trip into West Palm Beach included a lunch with Michael Margaritoff, founder and president of Safire Aircraft, designer of one of the new very light jets that is getting all the attention (see "The Second Century," June Turbine Pilot or visit the Web site; www.aopa.org/members/files/pilot/2000/second0006.html). On the way back to Vero Beach we stopped at Fort Pierce, where I had the opportunity to fly both the Micco SP20 and SP26. These two new sportplanes, especially the SP26, are an excellent compromise between a get-me-there cross-country airplane and purpose-built aerobatic aircraft. With the Miccos you can have your cake and eat it too—reasonable cross-country performance and the ability to loop and roll your way down the airway if that's your preference. Look for a report on the two new airplanes in an upcoming issue.

Day two took us farther south to North Perry Airport near Miami for a tour of Florida Suncoast Aviation, a progressive flight school and flying club. Next door is Socata Aircraft, manufacturer of the TB line of piston singles and the racy TBM 700 single-engine turboprop.

On day three the route was north from Vero—to Comair Aviation Academy at Orlando Sanford Airport and later to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at Daytona Beach International. This particular morning, en route to Sanford, the turbulence was up early—as tenacious and unrelenting as gravity itself.

No one appreciates the utility of general aviation and enthuses the joy of piloting an airplane more than I do, but by day three of our harried schedule and in the bumps as we dodged typical Florida buildups, the novelty was wearing a bit thin. The white, sandy beach and aqua surf down below sang a siren song to a weary traveler.

I had last flown into Sanford more than a decade ago when it was a sleepy little GA airport just under the then-new Orlando Class B (or terminal control area as it was called in those days). Today it sports a 9,600-foot runway and hosts Boeing 747 charters shuttling Europeans anxious to experience the world of Disney just down the freeway. My first trip to Sanford was to visit some start-up flight school called Comair Aviation Academy. It was holding its grand opening.

Turns out that the airport isn't the only thing to have grown up in the last dozen years. Comair has blossomed into one of the largest flight schools in the country—and possibly the largest, as far as number of pilot certificates issued annually. It's now owned by Comair Airlines, a regional airline which is itself owned by Delta Airlines.

We taxied up to Comair's operations center to find the ramp chock-a-block with Cessna 152s and 172s—70 in all at the Sanford facility, plus another 17 twins for multi training. The students and instructors were just starting to saddle up for the day's lessons. My flying partner swung the Mooney around in front of the ops center door—the only piece of vacant real estate—and shut down. Like nails drawn to a magnet, the students whooshed out the double glass doors to the Eagle. Instantly surrounded by the curious throng, I felt like Leonard Nimoy at a Trekkers convention. "I hope they don't bite," I whispered across the cockpit. I opened the door cautiously and stepped onto the wing amid a torrent of questions: Which model is this; is it a brand-new one; how fast does it go; what's the payload; how much does it burn an hour; what's it like to fly? The students not firing questions were crawling around underneath, examining the landing gear, touching the sleek wings, or looking askance at the Mooney's unusual tail section. These folks were in earnest need of something other than Cessna singles to look at. The enthusiasm of the place engulfed us immediately. These were students seriously curious about an airplane they had read about—one that many of us take for granted as being an everyday GA airplane. To them, new to aviation and living day in and day out with nothing but trainers, this was something to behold.

We answered their questions and went inside for our appointments as they continued to examine this curious flying machine that had descended into their lives. Several times throughout the morning as we toured the facilities, we walked past the glass doors to see more students and instructors circling the airplane—nodding and pointing like art enthusiasts admiring a painting.

Comair is home to about 500 students at any one time and employs about 110 CFIs, with a need for more. In this booming economy, the CFIs move up to the airlines almost as fast as they reach the minimum flight time requirements. Students here are not kids out of high school. The average age is 32, and 70 percent of them have no flight time at all when they first cross the Comair threshold. About a year later, they typically leave the place with commercial and instrument flight instructor certificates, a multiengine rating, and 350 flight hours. Some 85 percent of them complete the program all the way to the CFII stage, and 97 percent of those who complete the curriculum are hired by the airlines. Comair has partnerships with numerous carriers to guarantee interviews for its graduates. In fact, it supplies about 40 first officer candidates a month from its programs. And still the airlines are crying for more. While most of the flight instructors at Comair come from within, the company recently announced a program whereby any CFI who comes to work for the school can be guaranteed an interview after completing Comair's flight instructor standardization course and instructing for a set number of hours.

According to Tracy Thomason, manager of marketing, the academy has only one purpose: to provide qualified pilots to the airlines. Obviously, the strong demand for airline pilots means a steady stream of students at Comair, so school officials chart the prospects carefully. Based upon planned airline expansion and projected retirements, they expect the growth in demand to continue through 2003. It should then level off again for about four years before a big growth spike hits again in 2007.

Unlike most college aviation programs, the average student at Comair is probably in the midst of a career change. Chances are, the Comair students are paying for the training out of their own pockets, so they tend to take the training very seriously. Walk around the facilities and it's easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm; the place teems with energy. Everywhere you look, students are briefing and debriefing; classrooms are abuzz with learning; an electronic hum emanates from dim simulator rooms. The ops center is a sea of fresh-faced pilots checking weather, signing out airplanes, and hurriedly reviewing regs in the last minutes before a checkride. A study room boasts a collection of propeller and engine cutaways on stands—one showing a trashed piston from one of the school's own airplanes. The student and instructor landed safely as the engine's internals disintegrated.

Each of the academy's airplanes averages 165 flight hours a month. A dedicated staff of mechanics works round the clock to keep the fleet flying. One Cessna 172 has 18,000 hours on it. "It's the best-flying one out there; the CFIs will pick it every time if it's available," brags the maintenance chief.

By the time we were ready to leave, most of the students had cleared away from the Mooney. It was not quite the curiosity it had been upon our arrival. We cranked up and taxied away, looking out the side windows through greasy forehead imprints. The once-pedestrian Mooney somehow seemed more majestic than when we arrived.

The academy is a good place to get your aviation attitude batteries recharged. To the young men and women at Comair, aviation is their entire lives right now. They've chucked a career and given up time with family to pursue a goal that may or may not lead them to a cockpit seat in an airliner. If for nothing more, you have to admire them for taking the chance and going for their dreams.

Thomas B. Haines

Thomas B Haines | Editor in Chief, AOPA

AOPA Editor in Chief Tom Haines joined AOPA in 1988. He owns and flies a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. Since soloing at 16 and earning a private pilot certificate at 17, he has flown more than 100 models of general aviation airplanes.