Alex Ola has had a passion for the air for nearly as long as he can remember.
“I was always obsessed with airports and flying,” the 17-year-old said. “I knew I wanted to be a pilot and I kind of started growing into it.”
But it wasn’t until he entered high school that Ola thought, “OK, this is what I want to do.”
The senior-to-be at Mars High School, just outside Pittsburgh, hopes to one day fly for a longtime carrier like United or Delta. He just completed his first year of the high school’s Aviation Academy, a program offered through the aviation sciences program at Community College of Beaver County.
High school juniors and seniors like Ola can now get a jump-start on a potential career as a pilot, under a new partnership between CCBC, Butler County Community College and the High Flight Academy, a 2-year-old flying school at Pittsburgh-Butler Regional Airport.
“Our goal is to take a program we do really well … and really expand,” said CCBC spokesperson Leslie Tennant. “Through the high school academy, we’ve been able to expose more high school students to careers in aviation. And now by taking what we do and offering it in Butler County, we’ve been able to reach that many more students.”
The partnership allows juniors and seniors from high schools in both counties to earn 26 credits toward an associate’s degree and potentially their private pilot’s licenses.
“Ultimately, the goal for all educators is to teach people well and teach them to know what they’re doing and have them be successful,” Tennant said. “These partnerships kind of allow for that.”
Instructors, faculty and students gathered at Pittsburgh-Butler Regional Airport recently for the launch of the Aviation Academy. (Photos courtesy of Community College of Beaver County)
Students enrolled in the program take “ground school,” or classroom courses, through the community colleges, while High Flight Academy handles their air training.
Ground school can be grueling, but getting up in the air made the grind worth it, Ola said.
“It was hard, and it’s going to be hard next year too,” Ola said. “I like going up in the planes and all that, and that’s when it hit me: ‘OK, I think I can do this pretty well.’”
Students who enroll in the program pay per credit hour just like other students. In addition, flight time costs approximately $180 per hour as students work toward their private pilot’s license. Subsidies offered through the colleges give students a roughly 20 percent discount, High Flight Academy spokesman Fabio Ruberto said.
“The opportunities (for pilots) right now are greater than they’ve ever been and it’s just a tremendous time to be involved in aviation,” he said. “There is such a need for pilots. The cool thing about it is, when you’re done, you know you’re going to have a job in this business. It’s not ‘if’ or ‘maybe’ or ‘how much’ – you’ll have offers on the table before you’re even finished.”
The high school academy “creates that pipeline for a skilled workforce, but also sets up high school students on a career path that they can become passionate about and they can earn a family-sustaining wage, and know there will be a job waiting for them,” Tennant added.
For driven, passionate students like Ola, it is a tremendous opportunity to get a head start on a potential career before finishing high school.
“(This is) not an industry or a job you just fall into – you don’t just stumble into aviation,” Ruberto said. “The people that are involved with it all seem to have a real passion for it. They all have chosen it specifically because they know if they go to school and get their degree and get their pilot’s license, they can become a professional pilot.
“The endgame and the goal is very obvious.”