GOSHEN — “How do you land this thing?”
Those aren’t really the words you want to hear from a pilot-in-training. But it’s OK, because Ellie Bontrager, a junior at Fairfield High School, is piloting a flight simulator rather than a real airplane, and it’s still early in the year-long flight class offered through Fairfield’s partnership with the Wawasee Area Career and Technical Cooperative.
Bontrager and other Fairfield and Wawasee students gathered at the Goshen Airport Thursday morning, Sept. 19, for the class, taught by Dan Steiner of New Horizons Aviation. The students will earn two credits for the class, according to Fairfield principal Amy Bertram. Steiner said he’d like to see the class become a dual credit option for students — meaning that they would earn both high school and college credit.
Students don’t get to go up in the planes during this class. But the class is the first step in a three-step process to getting a private pilot’s license. About half of the 16 students indicated Thursday that they plan to pursue becoming a licensed pilot.
Class time is a combination of book work, observing the airport’s planes and learning about their parts and — the highlight for many students — sessions in a flight simulator owned by New Horizons Aviation. “Today is the first day that students will work in the flight simulator,” Steiner said Thursday, adding that by the end of the year, each of the 16 students will put in two hours with the simulator.
The first two in the machine — built to closely resemble the cockpit of a real airplane — were Bontrager and Kelsey Beachy, a senior at Fairfield.
“My brother is a pilot, and I’ve always been interested in aviation,” Beachy said.
She added shyly, with a sideways glance at her instructor standing nearby, “I like looking at the airplanes more than sitting in class.”
Steiner said he understands that students can’t wait to get into the fun stuff. In the meantime, though, there is written work to be completed — including several quizzes on students’ knowledge. On Thursday, he handed back a quiz that students had taken and explained that their scores weren’t the best.
“Don’t worry too much about your score,” he assured the class. “Part of what you’ll learn is how to take quizzes like these.”
After going over the quizzes briefly, Steiner sent a few students to work with the flight simulator and the others followed him to a nearby hangar. He went over the design of the plane and used a string and an air compressor to demonstrate how a plane might stall.
Steiner said later that he teaches the class because he believes there will soon be pilot jobs for young people.
“There’s a pilot shortage coming up,” Steiner said. “Pilots will start retiring soon, and that will open up a lot of jobs in the industry.”
Also, Steiner’s been a pilot and an instructor for about 35 years and he said he loves to talk about flying, especially with high school students.
“It’s a lot of fun to take someone who’s not very confident — or maybe overconfident — and teach them in a safe and professional way how to fly,” Steiner said.
He added that he talks about “five hazardous attitudes” a pilot can have and how students can avoid getting into trouble in the air. He encourages students to respect weather conditions and situations where they could feel pressured to fly even when it isn’t safe.
“I related it to them texting on a phone in a car,” Steiner said. “We all think (an accident) won’t happen to us. Well, that’s a hazardous attitude.”
Kim Nguyen, CTE director at the Wawasee Area Career and Technical Cooperative, said the class is funded by the state at about $800 per student. The class was offered once before, two years ago, but last year not enough students signed up to meet the minimum requirement.
For the first time, students are learning at the airport instead of at Fairfield High School. Students can take the Federal Aviation Administration knowledge test at the end. The test costs about $150, but WACTC pays the fee.
Nguyen said the class is part of the transportation-related vocational classes offered through WACTC.
“This gives them a different aspect of a career,” Nguyen said of the flight class. “For a long time, students were being pushed to go to college, and that’s what (the WACTC) focused on too. Nowadays it’s moving toward a 50/50 relationship where, yeah, you can go to college, but you can also go to a career.”
Nguyen added that the WACTC is trying to promote many different types of careers, including some that don’t necessarily require a college degree.
Hunter Holsten, a senior at Wawasee High School, is taking the class to help him reach his lifelong dream of piloting fighter jets for the U.S. Air Force. He said that the class, while only a first step toward getting a pilot license, will “help a lot.”