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Up, up and away

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Hillsboro Aero Academy student pilot Chris Thatcher, left, practices on a simulator with instructor and Portland Community College Program Manager Katie Leonard. It’s been about six months since Hillsboro Aero Academy became a separate entity from Hillsboro Aviation and started its flight school in Troutdale. Since then, not much has changed.

“Really the only things that have changed are the sign on the building and the logo,” said Jon Hay, Hillsboro Aero president. “It’s pretty much been business as usual for us.”

The academy partners with Portland Community College to offer an associate degree program for pilot training, in both large aircraft and helicopter operations.

“There (are) not a lot that really do what we do to that scale that are not university size schools,” Hay noted.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - General Manager Mark Paulson learned to fly helicopters as a member of the military and now has transferred those skills to the private sector. The campus is situated on the Troutdale Airport property tucked away in the southeast corner of the complex at 999 N.W. Frontage Road. Because students are largely on independent schedules, there’s a constant stream of blue uniforms on the campus and around Troutdale.

Large groups of Chinese students are often seen walking up 257th Avenue all wearing their military-esque uniforms.

“A lot of people ask us what’s up with those guys,” Hay said. “They’re part of a Chinese training program to train Chinese pilots. In the pilot world, part of everything is discipline, so they wear uniforms.”

International mix

More than 40 countries have students at the academy, but Hay likes to think his school is one of the few businesses reversing the trade deficit with China.

“They pay us,” he said.

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Fully half of Hillsboro Aero Academy student pilots hail from outside the United States, including this classroom full of Chinese students. This is true of other countries as well, as there really aren’t many civilian flight schools outside of the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Europe does have schools, but the cost is exorbitant. Countries like Brazil have schools that are more affordable, but the quality of training is lacking.

Hillsboro Aero and other like schools are the solution, and Hay wants to focus on slowly growing the Troutdale and Prineville campuses.

“Our Hillsboro campus is pretty well maxed out, but we do believe there’s a possibility for growth out here and certainly at Prineville,” he said. “We’re excited about that. What we’re looking to do is (add) diversity (from) other countries that we haven’t done business in.”

As it stands, the student population is about 51 percent domestic students and 49 percent international students.

“We like the mix,” he said.

But future growth is important, Hay noted, because of an impending pilot shortage.

“It is massive. I heard this week there are about 18,000 pilots flying in the U.S. commercial aviation airline industry. There is a forecast that there’s going to need to be 18,000 added in four to five years,” he said.

On-site training

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Hillsboro Aero Academy operates out of the Troutdale Airport and includes a large hanger for maintenance work, shown here. The Troutdale campus houses about 120 students learning how to fly either airplanes or helicopters on their way to careers as civilian pilots. The main building houses flight simulators, classrooms for one-on-one instruction and on-site testing for the Federal Aviation Administration. It’s outside that the ground and hands-on flight training begins.

Mark Paulson, general manager for the Troutdale campus, is a veteran helicopter pilot. Hay describes flying one as trying to balance on a beach ball covered in motor oil.

“It’s kind of like strapping on a backpack,” Paulson said as he demonstrated the basic mechanics of a training helicopter.

With three locations in Oregon, Hillsboro Aero is able to balance one of the most unpredictable factors in flying: weather.

“As you might imagine, weather is a big driver to what we can do,” Hay said. “Hillsboro can get really foggy at times, and Prineville can get really snowy, but they also have some great weather times. This area doesn’t get that foggy because the wind blows it away. Between our three campuses, we’re really able to meet the needs of our customers.”

That is where Hay really hopes to shine — continuing to serve the expanding customer base, and send well-trained pilots into the industry.

With the anticipated pilot shortage, the academy’s mission couldn’t be more timely.

“You will hear in the news in probably two years ... about flights that were canceled, rates for air travel going up, driven by there not being enough pilots,” he said. “Of course, schools like us are going to need to be available and pitch in.”

OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Hillsboro Aero Academy President Jon Hay says commercial aviation is facing a looming shortfall of pilots, which means future job opportunities for those with the needed skills.

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