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Bethel flight school puts local Alaska kids in pilot's seat

Colleen Mondor
Kyle Andrew from Kongiganak successfully passed his practical test for the commercial pilot certificate. His plan is to attend the next Era Aviation ground school, preparing to fly for them. He is pictured here with his instructor Roberto Guerrero – CFII (L) and FAA DPE Michael P. Buckland (R) Courtesy Yuut Yaqungviat

A revolution in flight training that is leading the way to the future of Alaska commercial aviation has very quietly been taking place in Bethel over the past decade. Yuut Yaqungviat Flight School -- “where people earn their wings” -- is dedicated to training Alaska Native pilots in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and has formed a unique partnership with Era Alaska. One hundred percent of Yuut Yaqungviat commercially-rated pilots have an opportunity to attend Era Alaska ground school.

If they meet the company’s standards, then they have a job.

“They can be at home, still hunt and fish, live the subsistence lifestyle and fly for us,” explains Jason Wilson, Era’s bush operations chief pilot. Between them, Yuut Yaqungviat and Era are bringing education and jobs to the bush, efforts that are crucial to the state’s economic health.

Yuut Yaqungviat's roots date back to 1999 when there were few hints of its current success. “We borrowed an airplane and there was a spot in the airport fence the students squeezed through,” recalls Mike Lucas, Yuut Yaqungviat chief pilot. “They even stayed in the Yute Air pilot house.” Lucas credits Yute’s former owner Will Johnson with pioneering the Bush training/hiring approach. 

In 2004, a nonprofit was formed by the Association of Village Council Presidents and the school pursued FAR Part 141 status with the FAA. Operating under this set of regulations means Yuut Yaqungviat follows a more regimented set of rules for training, submitting its curriculum and any changes to the FAA for review. It’s also subject to regular surveillance audits by the FAA and must meet minimum pass rates on the practical exams.

Yuut Yaqungviat’s Part 141 status allows students to test for their commercial licenses at 190 hours instead of the typical 250 hours required from less-structured training environments. It also has a serious financial impact for students in other ways.

“141 status opened the door for approval from the (Department of Veterans Affairs),” explains Lucas. “Students can use the GI Bill to earn their instrument and commercial licenses here.” Funding is also available through other state, federal and private sources and part of Yuut Yaqungviat’s mission is to make the school accessible to as many students as possible.

This isn't easy, with flight training so expensive. “To become a commercial pilot by the time you’re 22 in college, you’d need school loans in the neighborhood of $100,000,” says Lucas. Yuut Yaqungviat offers a faster, more-direct path to an aviation career, something that has become much more significant as the industry braces for a pending pilot shortage.

A dwindling pilot pool

This spring, the University of North Dakota Aviation Department (one of the top three aviation colleges in the country) released its fourth annual United States Airline Pilot Labor Supply Forecast. The results reinforced an expected shortage of pilots. Of the 205 student respondents, 32 percent said they are now reconsidering their plans to become an airline pilot and 8 percent said they have already abandoned this career path. Keep in mind, these are students already enrolled in an aviation college; when you consider the vast number abandoning aviation before that point, the industry alarms become even more pronounced.

A key point UND’s Kent Lovelace discussed when presenting the forecast at the April World Aviation Training Symposium convention was “to reduce training costs and provide help with financial aid.” This is where Yuut Yaqungviat gets in front of the problem.

The UND survey results are even more significant to Alaska, which has trouble retaining new pilot hires. Anyone who has worked in Bush aviation has a story of a new hire arriving from Outside and lasting less than a day before rejecting village life and catching the jet back to Anchorage. Even in larger cities such as Anchorage, Fairbanks or Juneau, some new hires quickly rebel against the heavy summer flying schedule and the requirements to load and unload their aircraft.

The situation is no better for flight instructors. “We had one from Michigan who lasted three months with us,” says Lucas, “and one from Utah who only made it two weeks.”

As the largest in-state carrier, Era is acutely aware of this situation and eager to find employees interested in long careers. “Working with Yuut Yaqungviat has greatly reduced our turnover in the Y-K Delta,” says Wilson. “It’s a valuable relationship for us.”

To date Yuut Yaqungviat has graduated 53 private pilots, 29 students with instrument ratings and 26 with commercial ratings. Lucas also notes the recent accomplishments of student Michael White, who spent his time last winter waiting for Era Ground School by passing the Ground Instructor Basic, Ground Instructor Instrument, and Advanced Ground Instructor exams. He has also taken the Fundamentals of Instruction and CFI written tests and is, according to Lucas, “the first local student to go this far past a Commercial Certificate.” White just passed his check ride with Era. 

As they sit right seat in Era Caravans, building time and receiving significant on-the-job training, White and his fellow Yuut Yaqungviat graduates can clearly see their futures. Eventually, after obtaining the necessary flight time, they will become Cessna 207 captains and continue within the Era pilot seniority system.

As their alumni move ahead in their chosen profession, Yuut Yaqungviat can be confident they are not only educating students but contributing to the region’s longterm economic prospects. Most important of all, they are keeping Alaska flying, something the whole state has a serious stake in. 

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com