Flight schools enjoy steady enrollment

Craig Bain’s head has been stuck in the clouds since he was a child.

For years, the Alexandria man, 37, has been interested in flying. But it was only three years ago that he enrolled in a flight instructor class at Manassas’ Dulles Aviation.

“I think it’s like a lot of people,” he said. “It’s something I wanted to do for a long time. And I finally had the gumption.”

New statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, which is based in Frederick, Md., suggest that terrorism fears and a souring economy have not prevented flying lovers, like Bain, from following their dreams.

The most recent numbers show flight school registration is up more than 2 percent over last year.

“Looking at all the trend information, it’s safe to say the new pilot numbers had a growing trend after Sept. 11,” said Keith Mordoff, an AOPA spokesman.

In fact, new security restrictions at commercial airports may have helped contribute to the increase, Mordoff said.

Jim Stone, the director of Manassas Aviation Center, still remembers how flight restrictions in the Washington area hurt his business right after Sept. 11.

But now, prospective students are lining up, just like before. Depending on the season, the school usually has 20 to 50 students.

Before Sept. 11, Dulles Aviation was enjoying an all-time high in enrollment. From 1999 to 2001, the school was averaging about 250 students per year, up from 150 to 175 students in previous years.

It took until April for the school to see its number of students fall off. Now, the school is training about the same amount of students it was last year, says Jennifer Murdock, flight school administrator.

“It just amazes me that the number of students is where it was before. And I’m glad that it is,” she said.

For the most part, business has returned to normal for flight schools at Manassas Regional Airport.

At Dulles Aviation, training for a private pilots’ license costs up to $6,000. Murdock estimates that nationwide it takes about $30,000 to $40,000 for a person to get the ratings and certification needed to become a commercial airline pilot.

Schools are split half and half between those wanting to learn to fly for fun and those who want to fly commercial airlines someday.

Business travelers who are tired of waiting in long security lines are deciding that it might be easier to do the flying themselves, Mordoff added.

“With the travel hassles of the airlines, a lot of people are saying, ‘With the type of travel I do, this might not be a bad idea,'” Mordoff said.

Learning to fly an airplane is not an easy task. Step inside a beginners’ airplane, such as a Cessna 172, and the sheer diversity of instruments, arrows and dials will blow the mind.

Flying, Stone said, is simply a wonderful thing.

“It’s great. It’s enjoyable,” he said.

Before Sept. 11, almost every person earning certification was immediately hired by the airlines. Many pilots in the industry are baby boomers who signed up after the Vietnam War. The retirement rate is now high.

With the airlines now suffering, only a third of those walking out of the school are finding jobs.

“They’re hoping the same thing that we’re all hoping for, that the airlines come back,” Murdock said.

Just Friday, Ammaar Ashraf, a 24-year-old flight instructor at the company, learned that he had been hired by Atlantic Coast Airlines.

Ashraf, who was born in Great Britain, remembers first being dazzled by airplanes while flying with his family as a child.

Many pilots have similar stories, Bain says.

“Everyone seems to know it early in life,” he said.

Staff writer Chris Newmarker can be reached at (703) 368-3101, Ext. 119.

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