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Greenwood flight school working to ease pilot shortage

Clayton Wesley is part of a new generation of pilots that are entering an industry that's in the middle of a worst-ever shortage.

GREENWOOD, Ind. — Growing up and after being inspired by his brother, 18-year-old Clayton Wesley always dreamed of becoming a pilot. Once he got into the cockpit, he fell in love.

"Ever since then, I just have been hooked on aviation and it's great," Wesley said.  

The high school student is gearing up for his exam this summer with the Federal Aviation Administration, hoping to get his private pilot's license. From there, he plans to go to college at Indiana State University to continue his aviation career.

"That awarding feeling is just indescribable," Wesley said  

Wesley is part of a new generation of pilots that are entering an industry in the middle of its worst shortage yet.

Currently, airlines are struggling to find solutions to fill their cockpits after the pandemic halted travel, training and hiring. It also resulted in a wave of early retirements.  

As demand bounces back, travelers are feeling the turbulence with delays, cancellations and higher prices.

To fill the gap, flight schools like Jeff Air Pilot Services are helping train the next generation of pilots.

"We are making a difference, not only in the airline industry, but we are making a difference in people's lives," said Tom Jeffries, Jeff Air's managing member.

In 2011, Jeffries started the school at Greenwood Airport after retiring from a major airline in 2005. He now encourages other retired pilots to do the same. 

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"Don't quit flying. Come and use your knowledge to train other students and give them your experience so they can move to the next level in their career," Jeffries said.  

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His son, David Jeffries, is also part of the business. He said there are more than 70 students currently enrolled at the school.  

Credit: WTHR

"The hope is to really bring in a quality candidate that the airlines can take and really make them into a successful airline pilot," David said. "We don't expect you to be commercial-proficient the day you start your private pilot's license. We build into that and the skill set grows as you come through the program."

When it comes to finding a job, David said the openings are endless right now. It's why former U.S. Marine Ben Clancy signed up for the school back in October.  

Credit: WTHR

"It's good money, so I figured I might as well give it a try," Clancy said. "It's a lot of fun, so I am going to keep doing it."

With each flight, Clancy is taking his career to new heights and encouraging others to give it a try.  

"If you don't like doing it, don't keep doing, it but there is no reason not to try," Clancy said.  

Even though there is an increase in younger pilots signing up, it might take a while before airlines feel any relief. 

"It's still going to take two to four years for (pilots) to get the 1,500 hours that are required to go to the airlines," said Larry Bell, an instructor at the school. 

In the meantime, instructors like Bell are helping new pilots navigate the controls to hopefully one day land a job.  

"When they take their check ride with the FAA examiner and they get their private pilot license in their hand, that is a proud moment right there," Bell said.  

In the next two decades, airlines are expected to need about 130,000 new pilots, according to research from Statista. 

If you are interested in trying flight school, Jeff Air offers a discovery flight. It's a 30-minute lesson with a certified flight instructor where you can fly the airplane and manipulate the controls. 

In order to obtain a private pilot's license, you must have a minimum of 40 training hours, and the price ranges from $11,500-$14,500. Students flying three to four times per week can complete the program in about three months.

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