Palo Alto’s “mini campus” offers helicopter courses at Stinson Airport
By Evelyn Reyes
A new program at Palo Alto College has people buzzing about getting in the air.
The college’s aviation program now includes helicopter training for students, said lead Instructor John Aken, a pilot for over 17 years.
The program announced a partnership with Alamo Helicopters in May, giving birth to the helicopter courses now offered at a mini campus at Stinson Municipal Airport.
“The helicopter courses are the newest addition to the aviation program,” Aken said.
PAC’s aviation program, which trains students to fly rotary wing aircraft, was launched in 1988 by Bruce Hoover, a decorated pilot who earned awards including the U.S. Air Force Commendation Medal in 1974 and an award for outstanding leadership and dedication to aviation education in May 2008.
To apply for the 16-week aviation program, students must pass an interview process and ensure they are financially able to take the course.
The program begins with ground school, where students learn the “basics.” This includes different types of clouds, airplane “roads,” engine parts and how an aircraft works.
Students must complete the rotary wing program to take courses for piloting helicopters, Aken said.
The entire aviation program takes about two years if the weather cooperates.
“The aviation industry is a giant industry,” Aken said. “Almost everyone who starts on a fixed wing program starts with small aircraft.”
A rotary wing program is the foundation in which all pilots learn to fly, he said. After students have completed the rotary wing training, they will have a choice to move on to bigger aircraft or begin with helicopters.
Fixed wing aircraft include airlines, cargo aircraft or anything with a turbine engine.
When students graduate, they will have a private license to fly non-commercial aircraft for personal or recreational use with up to six passengers.
Students also graduate with an instrumental certification and commercial certification, which allow pilots to be hired to fly, as well as certification as a flight instructor.
“This level is getting experience and building hours,” he said. “That’s the key once you graduate. You get experience and build hours.”
The program, after about eight to 10 years of experience and flying time, produces pilots who will one day fly planes for United, Southwest and other airlines.
After students complete the program at PAC, they are eligible to apply for jobs as flight instructors for companies such as Alamo Helicopters and Sky Safety.
Alamo Helicopters and Sky Safety are companies that provide the instructors and training aircraft students use to fly.
Aken explained the steps future pilots must go through to fly as a corporate pilot, which is still considered the bottom of the flight chain career path.
“You start as a flight instructor, then you build hours of time and experience,” he said.
“You move up the flight instructor chain to a multiengine instructor, then you become an instrument instructor and you build more time and experience.”
“There are thousands of corporate aviation pilots,” he said. “If you’re lucky enough and have over 1,500 to 1,800 hours and, get some jet time, you can apply directly to heavy metal, commercial airlines or air cargo, provided you have a four-year college degree.”
Aken also said if students are interested in flying for airlines, they would need to continue their education and gain at least a master’s degree, as well as log some jet time. After they complete this, they can be considered as an airline pilot.
The program isn’t for everyone, he said.
“This is a very complex, highly skilled, trained program,” Aken said, noting that it is a pass-fail program.
Aviation sophomore Mariah Moreno is working to obtain a commercial license. Her goal is to become a pilot for the Air Force. One day she hopes to fly a C5 Galaxy, a cargo aircraft.
“It’s like one big aviation family,” she said of Palo Alto’s aviation program.
“If one person struggles, you’ll see 10 more people around to help them because they know what it’s like to struggle.”
The program is open to students willing to dedicate their life to flying. It also is a great program for military veterans, Aken said.
For more information, call Aken at 210-486-3077.