published on May 4, 2018 - 1:23 PM
Written by Gabriel Dillard

It’s not just officials in the cities of Reedley and Mendota hoping the Federal Aviation Administration will act soon to allow them to launch their joint pilot-training program.

Months before the four electric planes on which the flight training will occur arrived from Europe, disassembled in shipping containers, officials with the two cities were in talks with Reedley College about using the planes, too.

The community college runs a nationally known training program in aircraft mechanics, and next semester it will launch its first-ever program offering a flight science associate’s degree.

It will be the only such degree program in the Central Valley, which will include graduates receiving commercial pilot certificates, along with certificates to train pilots.

“It’s a straight-though program — 24 months,” with no summer breaks, said John Johnson, Flight Science Program coordinator for Reedley College, as well as a former Air Force navigator and aviation instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the world’s largest, fully accredited university specializing in aviation and aerospace, with campuses in Florida and Arizona.

The training certificate is particularly important, he said, because even though there is a pilot shortage and many small, regional airlines are desperate to hire them, newly- certified pilots rarely can get pilot jobs.

At the same time, there also is a significant shortage of flight instructors, and those jobs are easier to get once a pilot is certified as an instructor, Johnson said.

“Ninety-five percent of civilian airline pilots started as flight instructors,” and every time they fly for work allows them to build up the minimum 1,500 flight hours they need to be considered as co-pilot on small, commercial aircraft for regional airlines.

Nicole Zieba, city manager for Reedley, said there has been talk of having instructors in Reedley College’s aircraft mechanics oversee maintenance of the four electric planes while also giving their students hands-on experience working on such planes, which would give them a leg up for maintenance jobs as electric planes go into wider use.

While such an agreement hasn’t happened, Zieba said that once the FAA authorizes the electric planes to be used as trainers, Reedley College will be able to use them to train students in the Flight Science Program.

In the meantime, once the program launches in August, instructors will use planes running on fossil fuels.

Whatever the students fly, the experience will not come cheap, as tuition and fees for the entire program will come out to $65,000 over the six semesters.

“It’s the most expensive community college degree at any community college in California, and the reason it costs so much is the cost for the airplanes,” which generally cost about $220 a lesson to use, Johnson said.

While electric planes fly cheaper because they don’t use fossil fuels, he said the college using the electric planes will not affect the tuition rates.

But Reedley will be unique among California community colleges and state colleges offering such training, as officials are working on getting authorization that would allow some students to use their federal financial aid or their veterans’ educational benefits to pay for portions of their tuitions and fees.

In fact, he said that once approved, veterans’ benefits likely would cover almost all of a flight science student’s costs.

“Most of the intent with Reedley College was to give student experience in a new, emergent technology,” said Zieba, adding that the experience flying electric planes could give students from Reedley College and the flight-training program that will be run by the cities of Reedley and Mendota legs up in jobs flying electric planes as they become more prevalent in the U.S.

“There is a company in Santa Monica working on the first all-electric plane for passenger flights,” with expectations of getting planes in the air starting in 2025, she said.

“People working for this company could come from Reedley,” said Zieba, noting that current battery technology doesn’t allow for long flights yet, but with the cheaper costs to run planes on electricity rather than on gasoline, there could be a market in the not too distant future for small airlines offering short, regional flights.

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