Pacific Northwest hosts ideal training conditions for professional airline, helicopter pilots

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Helicopter flight instructor Rusty Knudtson gets a student ready to fly at the Hillsboro Aviation flight school in Troutdale. Exile Wu is sitting in the cockpit of a flight simulator.

A control panel of dials and blinking red numbers in front of him, he's taking a lesson from an instructor on how to operate an airplane.

Wu is from Shanghai, China. A full-time student, he's been in town six months, studying five days a week in Troutdale to become a pilot for Shanghai Airlines back home.

You've probably seen students such as Wu, wearing blue uniforms and walking along 257th Avenue or East Historic Columbia River Highway around lunchtime.

If you haven't stopped to ask, you might not know they are students from Hillsboro Aviation, the only international flight school operating in Troutdale, west of the airport at 911 N.W. Graham Road.

Described as “a quiet, unassuming company,” in their handbook, Hillsboro Aviation — it's main facility founded in Hillsboro in 1980, with facilities in Prineville and Troutdale — is one of the largest combined helicopter and airline flight schools in the country.

The company, which started training on a sole helicopter, has expanded its services to include avionics, maintenance, aircraft sales, charter services and scenic tours.

Flying international

Jon Hay, Hillsboro Aviation's general manager, said the flight school is one of the most well-respected on the West Coast. But he says it is perhaps better known overseas in some countries.

Foreign students are drawn to Troutdale's school, opened in 2005, for different reasons, Hay said. Fewer opportunities, lesser quality training and steeper regulations in their home countries are to name a few. Learning English is another benefit.

But a dream to fly is No. 1.

“Many students have never flown before,” said Kenny Ketcham, an airplane flight instructor at the school.

Alongside an even mix of American students, Hillsboro Aviation has trained students from more than 75 countries, with those from Europe, Brazil, Taiwan and China making up a few of the most recruited.

All of the programs are paid by the attending student, except for one program unique to China.

Chinese airlines will pay for students' training in the U.S. if they meet strict criteria, Hay said.

Students must first complete a four-year aviation degree in China before only the most hard working and English-proficient are selected to continue training at schools such as Troutdale's.

Even then, students at the bottom of the grade curve are at risk of being sent home.

Many students, despite nationality or origin, benefit from the one-on-one training offered at the school.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: CARI HACHMANN - Exile Wu of Shanghai, China, gets an on-the-ground lesson in airplane instruments from flight instructor Kenny Ketcham. Wu's instructors, including Ketcham, are trying to help him finish his aviation program in one year.

Wu trains on the ground and in the air everyday, making the short commute between the flight school and the school's provided apartments near the Historic Highway. By the end of his training, Ketcham said Wu will be “ready to fly an airliner.”

"Wind is your friend unless you make it your enemy"

Most people wouldn't think the Pacific Northwest has the most ideal weather for flying.

Not so for pilots who want to learn how to fly in what they deem “real” weather.

After building houses for 15 years, Rusty Knudtson of Grass Valley, Calif., (north of Sacramento) decided to chase down his dream of flying helicopters.

He researched 30 flight schools across the country. He could have flown in the sunny skies of San Diego or Miami, but he chose Troutdale.

“There's a lot to gain from diverse weather environments,” he said, like, “proper decision making in the face of inclement weather.”

Many students attend Troutdale's flight school for the same reason.

Starting as a student in May 2010, Knudtson is now a helicopter instructor teaching advanced air courses.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - A helicopter pilot practices external load training, or how to maneuver equipment such as a water bucket to dump on fires, under the aircraft.When novice pilots get the chance to leave the airspace above Troutdale Airport, he flies them to remote areas in the mountainous Cascade range.

“We practice safe ways to land in varying wind conditions and the ever-changing environment that is the Pacific Northwest,” Knudtson said.

Earning their wings

Hillsboro Aviation's Troutdale facility was opened on behalf of a request by Portland Community College to help grow their aviation flight program, Hay said.

Each flight school offers two- and four- year college degree programs through Portland Community College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, respectively.

A student's schedule is flexible.

Scheduling flights online, some students fly everyday while others fly once or twice a week on one of the 18 or so airplanes and helicopters at the Troutdale school.

Ground instruction includes pre-flight training, weather and route planning and flight simulation.

Job options for airline and helicopter range the skies.

Pilots coming out of Troutdale's flight school may fly for big commercial airlines such as Horizon or Alaska or overseas airlines like Brazil's Avianca and Taiwan's EVA Air.

Helicopter pilots may decide to fight forest fires or conduct life flights locally. Others drift to the tourist industry, flying people over Hawaii or the Grand Canyon, while some are drawn to private oil and gas exploration in the gulf of Mexico.

Many students are veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, who are applying their skills from the military to become civilian pilots, Hay said.

“We all need aviation — reliant transportation of goods and people,” Hay said.

Often without knowing where they get their wings from, people put their life on the shoulders of pilots, he said.

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