BY ROLAND FLEMING
If you are not afraid of high costs, high stress and just being up high, then Conestoga’s aviation program might be for you. While the job of a pilot may seem glamorous, the road to get there is often not.
Chris Shiels has been working toward a commercial pilot licence for around five years. In 2011 he found himself working in a restaurant washing dishes in Wiarton, Ont. This is where he met a pilot who was the fiance of one of the servers. After talking with the man several times, Shiels was convinced to go on a flight. It was after that first flight he knew he wanted to be a pilot. He started his training at Wiarton Aviation.
“I quite enjoyed it, but it was not financially feasible at the time,” he said. A couple of years went by and Shiels moved from Wiarton to Cambridge where he undertook some flight training again. But still, with his work schedule and other factors, he wasn’t getting many flight hours in. That’s why he decided to enrol in Conestoga’s general arts and science aviation program.
The two-year program is a fast track to getting both a diploma and a commercial pilot’s licence. This sounds great on paper, but in reality it can be a stressful and expensive undertaking.
“You need three things to be successful in this program; a passion for flying, you have to love that more than anything else you have ever done or ever will do in your life, determination to succeed, and money,” said program co-ordinator Kerry Townson.
Entering this program is not something you do on a whim, but something you do with relentless determination and passion. If you think being a pilot “might” be what you want to do, then this program is probably not for you.
One of the reasons why students must be strongly committed is the cost. As Townson mentioned, students in this program must have money to succeed. As you can imagine, it is not cheap to fly an airplane. In order to obtain a commercial pilot’s licence students must complete a minimum of 200 flight hours.
The estimated cost of the program listed on the college’s website is $60,000, which is over and above tuition costs. The real cost, however, depends on how quickly you can complete the program. Townson said students who complete the program quickly may pay less than $60,000. She said it also depends on the physical size of a person. A tall person may have to use larger aircraft that cost more to fly. Although it is a two-year program, students are given up to three years to complete it. For students who need the extra time, they must also pay the extra cost of continued flight training.
“It’s important that you know that you will have enough to get through the program,” said Shiels. He is close to obtaining his licence and graduating, but is now entering into his third year. He estimates that his costs are now up as high as $85,000. This is why money is necessary to be successful in the program. You could be a few hours shy of obtaining your licence, but if you don’t have the finances there is no way to continue. Student loans will not cover any of the flight costs.
“I’ve been lucky enough to borrow money from various members and they’ll all get it back later,” said Shiels.
Most students entering the program must have strong support from family. The pressure to succeed is high, as many students have family who have invested tens of thousands of dollars. Still, only two-thirds of those who enter the program come out with their commercial licence said Townson.
But surely for all the expense and toil put into the training, pilots must be well compensated? Actually, most entry level pilots have annual salaries under $30,000. You can actually make more working on the ground at the airport than you would as a new pilot.
“That’s the thing about aviation, every time you get promoted you get a pay cut,” said Shiels. As you move your way up to larger companies with higher pay ceilings, you start on the bottom of the ladder and must climb your way up.
“If you are going into it, make sure you’re not going into it for the money,” he said.