VERNON TOWNSHIP — Things are taking off at Port Meadville Airport and those things will soon include student pilots at the only flight school in northwestern Pennsylvania that offers the structured flight instruction that can lead to careers in the aviation industry.
“It’s big news for us,” Port Meadville manager Rob Golenberke said last week as employees at North Coast Flight School Inc. put a fresh coat of paint on the interior walls of their new home.
“There’s not many Part 141 schools around,” Golenberke continued, referring to the section of federal code that covers more academically oriented flight schools, often associated with a college, that offer commercial certification. In contrast, Part 61 schools tend to be more informal and lack the more formal classroom experience and rigorous Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) oversight typical of Part 141 programs. North Coast partners with Edinboro University of Pennsylvania through Edinboro’s associate’s degree program in aeronautical science, though the flight school offers instruction independent of the college as well.
“It’s tough to find them,” Golenberke said of Part 141 programs, “and we’ve been trying to get a school here for some time. It’s pretty exciting to have something in our area like this.”
Until last month, prospective flyers interested in attending a Part 141 program in the region had to commute to Erie International Airport, North Coast’s location for the past 18 years. But over the past several weeks, the school has taken up residence at Port Meadville, renovating office space in the large hangar closest to the terminal and passing inspection by the FAA, according to North Coast owner Greg Hayes.
“We are completely cleared and ready to go,” Hayes said Thursday inside the new office. “We’re doing the exact same process as what we did there, just moving here.”
Nearby, flight instructors Matt Trost, 22, and Bryan Loomis, 32, continued work on the office space in preparation for the anticipated students. In fact, Loomis said, a drone-flying class was planned for Friday. Traditional flight classes are expected to pick up shortly after the new year when the Edinboro semester begins.
While Loomis, with nearly 400 flight hours under his belt, earned his flight instructor certification independently, Trost is a product of the Edinboro program. His interest in meteorology and a desire for a more active line of work that kept him from sitting behind a desk for much of the day led him to aviation, he said.
“I figured I’d do something like this for a couple of years — be outside,” Trost said as he began listing some of the advantages that attracted him to the profession, “get to observe the weather firsthand, be up in the clouds, do something cool every day. It’s always different.”
A major obstacle to entry for many of those interested in becoming pilots is cost, Hayes noted. Before earning the airline transport pilot license necessary to fly for airlines, pilots must have accumulated 1,500 hours of flight experience. That’s tough to do for pilots who don’t have planes of their own and instead have to pay for flight time. Hourly rates for plane rental, fuel and instructor time can easily exceed $250.
Completing a Part 141 program makes the process more achievable by enabling students to become flight instructor certified. By becoming instructors, they can get paid while accumulating more hours at the stick, according to Hayes. With a nationwide shortage of both certified instructors and airline pilots, the school has seen plenty of interested students and the Edinboro program is “really starting to take off,” he added.
Beginning students will literally take off in North Coast’s Piper Archer, which was parked inside the hangar a short walk from the school’s new office. The plane, “about as basic as you can get,” Hayes said, is the perfect trainer.
But even those who aren’t eager to try flying themselves stand to benefit from the school’s presence in Meadville. Hayes said he hopes to continue historic aircraft shows that he helped bring to Erie in his school’s new home. In fact, part of the reason behind the move was the ability to stage such events — something that had become increasingly difficult in Erie where regulations were stricter and hangar space was unavailable.
“It was just very limited in what we could do. We kind of got as big as we could get there,” Hayes said of the Erie airport where he continues to serve on the board of Erie Regional Airport Authority. “It’s nice to be at a place where you’re wanted.
“Down here,” he added, “the sky’s the limit.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at [email protected].