Historic flight school could fall victim to pilot shortage, lack of funding

One of the biggest problems facing the Ottawa Flying Club is whether there are enough instructors to train the students.

Training flights will be grounded if the Ottawa Flying Club can't find enough instructors

The Ottawa Flying Club has been operating continuously since 1928. (CBC)

This should be a year of celebration as the historic Ottawa Flying Club reaches a milestone of nine decades soaring through open skies above the nation's capital. 

Instead, the famous flight school is facing financial dark clouds. The not-for-profit organization struggled in 2017 because bad weather impacted flying time, which hurt revenues. It's also coping with the fallout from a pilot shortage.

We're just holding on by our fingernails right now.- Richard Swaffer, Ottawa Flying Club

"We're just scraping by," said Richard Swaffer, the club's general manager. "We're just holding on by our fingernails right now." 

The club has even talked about closing.

"What if we don't get any flying in during the next six weeks? There's potential [of closing]. I would hate to see that happen. This is our 90th year flying," said Swaffer, himself a pilot with 25 years flying experience.

The flight school has a plethora of prospective students and even turned away about 40 people last year. One of the biggest problems this upcoming flying season will be whether there are enough instructors to train the students.

The pilot shortage has forced some regional airlines to cancel flights and lower the flight-hour requirements for new pilots in an effort to help fill positions. Regional airlines in Canada are so desperate they are not just hiring flight school graduates, but their teachers as well. As a result, those flight schools are left with inexperienced instructors and vacant positions.

The historic flight school is celebrating its 90th year, but faces the possibility of closing. (CBC)

For the Ottawa Flying Club, the pilot shortage could be a major factor in whether the school will have to close its doors. Without enough instructors, aircraft may have to be grounded and it will take longer for students to graduate.

"It could be one of the bales of hay on the camel's back," said Swaffer. "If I can't fly, I can't generate revenue."

Across the country, flight schools are grappling with the instructor shortage. Until recently, instructors would stick around until they had about 1,500 flying hours before they would be hired by an airline. These days, instructors are scooped up with much less experience under their belt.

"Any air carrier always wanted to have a pilot who had experience beyond being a flight instructor. So some sort of …bush or charter experience," said Bob Connors, general manager of Kitchener, Ont-based Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre, one of the largest flight schools in the country. 

"What's changed is that the threshold for that, if at all, has dropped dramatically. So they are now taking flight instructors with 500 to 1,000 hours from flight schools and going direct entry into air carrier aircraft."

Tough to keep staff

The Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre began 2017 with 37 trainers on staff. Over the course of the year, the school lost 18 of those staff members and was only able to train and hire five new instructors.

Connors say it wasn't a fluke, but part of a growing trend as the pilot shortage worsens across Canada. So far, he's been able to mitigate the impact of flagging interest in the profession that no longer holds the allure it once enjoyed during the heyday of aviation.

"We're not looking at massive growth, but we're not looking at scaling back," he said.

This is not a rich kid's hobby. These guys are struggling to make a living,- Richard Swaffer, Ottawa Flying Club

Feeling the financial pressure at the Ottawa Flying Club, Swaffer admits he's even asked airlines and different levels of government for funding. More money would go a long way in persuading young instructors to stick around.

"We haven't raised salaries in, I don't even know, years. It's frightening what these guys make," said Swaffer. "This is not a rich kid's hobby. These guys are struggling to make a living."

The flight club is now turning to its alumni members to see if any retired airline pilots are interested in teaching.