Aviation Camp Targets Next Generation of Pilots

July 18, 2022

Jul. 16—Delta Air Lines pilot Kyle Greene is on the front lines of the airline industry, as carriers struggle to get enough pilots trained and in the cockpit to operate thousands of flights a day amid a travel rebound.

Greene also sees an even bigger challenge looming on the horizon: How will the industry find enough new pilots to operate even more flights in the years to come?

"At the current rate, there's not enough pilots," Greene said.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated retirements, exacerbating concerns about a looming pilot shortage as more baby boomers leave the cockpit. "We gotta replace those people," he said.

It might not be immediate, but some of the replacements are already lining up, and they're just 13-18 years old.

Greene is co-director of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals' Aerospace Career Education (ACE) Academy in Atlanta, a student summer camp for aspiring pilots and other young aviation enthusiasts.

The ACE Academy in Atlanta, a week-long program sponsored by Delta, has operated for more than 20 years to introduce middle school and high school students to aerospace. It's one of dozens of ACE Academies operated around the country by the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals with the goal of increasing diversity in the aviation industry — and broadening the prospective talent pool.

After a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the ACE Academy in Atlanta relaunched this month just as the risks of a pilot shortage have become painfully apparent.

"I've heard there's definitely a shortage and there's a high demand for pilots," said ACE student Barrion Boyle, 18, who graduated from McEachern High School in Powder Springs. "I'm here knocking on the door."

Regional carriers and other airlines have had to slash flight schedules because they can't hire enough pilots to staff them.

Atlanta-based Delta says it is able to attract enough pilots and is hiring 200 a month, but is struggling to get them through training quickly enough as travel roars back. Delta has had to cut its flight schedule this summer and through the rest of the year as a result.

The Air Line Pilots Association union says the real problem is that airlines aren't paying pilots enough for their training and experience — regional carriers, where many pilots start their airline careers, have long paid far less than large carriers like Delta. But the union also emphasizes the need to recruit more young people to become pilots.

The ACE Academy and Delta's Propel collegiate pilot career path program "allow us to grow the talent that we need," said Keyra Lynn Johnson, Delta's chief diversity equity and inclusion officer. "It just becomes a nice feeder pool."

In fact, dozens of the teenagers who attended ACE camp as students years ago have now become professional pilots, including at Delta.

"It's real. It's not just camp," Johnson said.

Greene is one of those students. Growing up in Atlanta, "I always knew I wanted to be a pilot," he said.

"My mom, when I was like, 4, took me to a Blue Angels air show, and that was it," he said.

In 2007 at the age of 16, he attended ACE camp, then started flight training, got his pilot's license during college, and later became a regional jet pilot before being hired by Delta five years ago.

"Almost anybody can be a pilot," Greene said — but he also notes there are serious barriers to entry. "The biggest hurdle is money and time," he said, adding that it can cost more than $60,000 for the flight training.

Delta pays for some flight hours for ACE students who graduate to the two-week Solo Flight Academy, where they attend ground school and get flight training.

Those students joined ACE graduates for a "Dream Flight" on a Delta Boeing 757 from Atlanta to the Air National Guard Base in Duluth, Minnesota on Friday to see the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

Among those on board was 17-year-old Eli Boyd, whose parents connected him with the ACE program after seeing this passion for aviation from an early age. Eli got a writing assignment in third grade and "it was all about flying," said his father, Samuel J. Boyd Jr. This month, Eli flew a plane himself for the first time during the Solo Flight Academy.

"Then you have a confident kid that believes they can do something that's incredibly difficult," said Samuel J. Boyd Jr. "That's a very good recipe there for success."


How to become a Delta pilot — To become an airline pilot, the Federal Aviation Administration requires a minimum of 1,500 of total pilot flight hours in experience. — Delta also evaluates potential hires for aviator skills, safety, professionalism and customer service. — Delta's Propel pilot career path program partners with more than a dozen aviation universities across the country. Students can apply for a qualified job offer with a defined path and accelerated timeline of 42 months or less to become a Delta pilot.


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