Nolan Shell has dreamed of becoming a pilot for a major airline since taking a flight on a family vacation when he was a child. Now he's on a path to realizing that dream in about 3½ years as part of a new program.

The 18-year-old has already received his pilot's license and will get the additional training needed to pilot commercial aircraft under a partnership with the Direct Connect Flight Academy at the Colorado Springs Airport and Metropolitan State University of Denver. The program cuts about a year from the time needed for a student pilot to get hired by a passenger airline or major cargo carrier.

"I wanted to become a pilot ever since I was sitting in the passenger seat and thought it was awesome to fly," said Shell, who graduated from Doherty High School in May. "My goal is to work for a major airline such as a cargo carrier like FedEx or UPS. The first takeoff I remember was leaving on a family vacation and I looked out the window and looked forward to the flight more than the vacation."

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Shell, the first student in the program, took his first flight with an instructor last August, making turns and doing a touch-and-go landing and takeoff during a one-hour lesson that convinced him to make flying a career. He received his private pilot's license last month and will do most of his flying at Direct Connect in the Springs while commuting twice a week to Metro State's campus near downtown Denver for classes and training in a simulator.

The Metro State program is designed to help the airline industry combat a pilot shortage that aviation consulting firm Oliver Wyman forecasts will triple from nearly 20,000 later this year to 60,000 by 2029. The shortage, triggered by pilot retirements that accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic,  has prompted regional carrier SkyWest Airlines to cut 29 cities from its schedule and triggered schedule reductions for Southwest Airlines and other major U.S. carriers.

"Airlines would not have even thought of hiring anyone under 30 during the late 1990s," said Kevin Kuhlmann, associate chair of the Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science at Metro State, who lives in Monument. Back then, he added, 75% to 80% of the pilots came out the military and 20% 25% came from civilian airlines, mostly regional carriers/ "Now it is exactly the opposite and you (students) will probably spend three years at a regional airline, get upgraded to captain, making them a highly successful candidate for major carriers."

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Students that complete the program will receive a type of certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, called restricted airline transport pilot authority that gets them in the cockpit more quickly. That license allows pilots in training to fly passenger jets after completing 1,000 hours of flight time, instead of 1,500 required for the unrestricted certification needed to become an airline pilot. That allows those to work as a copilot until they accumulate the additional 500 hours needed for unrestricted certificate.

Congress increased the flight time requirement from 250 hours to 1,500 hours after an aircraft operated by regional carrier Colgan Air crashed near Buffalo, N.Y., in 2009 that killed all 49 passengers and crew aboard and one person on the ground. The National Transportation Safety Board ruled that pilots didn't respond "appropriately" to warnings designed to avert an engine stall as the probable cause of the crash.

Metro State won FAA approval last fall to offer training for the restricted certificate and formed partnerships with Direct Connect and McAir Aviation at Rocky Mountain Airport in Broomfield to offer the flight training part of the program. Metro State hopes to add at least one more flight school in the Denver area to the program this year to expand the number of students the program can accommodate, Kuhlmann said.

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Metro State is the only four-year Colorado college or university that offers a program approved to offer training for the restricted certification, though students can start in programs at Aims Community College in Greeley and Colorado Northwestern Community College in Rangely and transfer to Metro State after two years.

The program is designed for students like Shell to allow them to work while they are still completing the Metro State program as paid flight instructors for flight schools after a year to 1½ years of training. Kulmann said that helps students earn pay that will help them pay the up to $120,000 cost of the Metro State program and accumulate the flight time required for the restricted and unrestricted certificates.

"The $120,000 is a big investment, but if you get hired by an airline at 25 years old, you can earn $10 million during a 40-year career (as a pilot). That is a lot better odds than the lottery," Kuhlmann said. By getting the restricted certificate, beginning pilots can become a captain for a major airline more quickly, which means higher pay for longer as well as better schedules and more desirable assignments, he said.

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Ben Dwyer, president and co-owner of Direct Connect, started the flight school in 2016 to train commercial (those who fly corporate aircraft) pilots with a goal of getting FAA approval to train airline pilots, which it received in 2020. He and partner Frank Schultz named the school Direct Connect to reflect their vision of "connecting students directly to an aviation career." Dwyer started his career with two regional airlines and moved in 2008 to Denver-based Frontier Airlines, where he is director of flight standards.

Contact Wayne Heilman 636-0234

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