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Palo Alto Aviation Program Bounces Back, Filling Future Need For Pilots

With a possible shortage of American pilots looming, a unique South Texas program is training students from all over the state to be ready to fly.

Instructor John Aken, who occasionally flies to work in his single-prop Piper Cherokee, is a military veteran, but didn't learn how to fly until he was out of the military and his kids were grown.

Years later, in 2007, Palo Alto College hired Aken to transition the aviation technology school, based at Stinson Airfield, out. Ups and downs in the economy had brought the school's enrollment to about six.

But Aken, without knowing how it would turn out, seemed to turn things around.

"I just don't shut things down well," he said. "By the end of 2008, we were already growing. It took about three, four semesters, about 18 months."

There are now 198 students and it's the only accredited aviation training school of its kind in South-Central Texas, save for a fairly new four-year degree program at Texas Lutheran.

"From here south, all the way to the border and the Valley, we're it," he said. "I have three or four students that actually drive every day from Corpus to go to class."

Aken said the airline industry is in demand, and worries about a shortage of pilots. Required retirement age for a pilot is in the 60s and a number of pilots today are approaching that age, he says.

"Those of us who know our history know that most of those people came out of Vietnam. We're all getting in our 60s now. So when we retire, who replaces us?" he asked. "The problem on the bottom end is that there's not enough flight schools."

Aken said there are 3,500 airliners in the air at any given moment and four personnel for every pilot are on the ground working. It's a large number of skilled workers who need training from schools like this one.

The training is expensive, intense, and time consuming, but Aken believes it's worth it because flying's fun and the training for a needed industry happens to be located right here.

Ryan Loyd was Texas Public Radio's city beat and political reporter. He left the organization in December, 2014.