Diego Blandon has been passionate about aviation since he first started turning wrenches on aircraft. And as a former Marine and later a U.S. Army helicopter pilot, he knew that military pilots are prime candidates for commercial airline jobs.
That was the genesis of Arapahoe Flight Club, which trains pilots for commercial jobs in a relaxed atmosphere where aviation enthusiasts can share interests.
“Being former military, I saw there was a huge need for an institution that was capable of transitioning former military pilots to the airlines,” Blandon said.
Federal Aviation Administration figures show there’s a worldwide shortage of pilots, and airlines are feeling the pinch. The FAA reported that the number of commercial pilots in the United States is down 30 percent from 30 years ago, while the number of passengers has grown.
New federal safety measures imposed in 2013 increased the number of flight-training hours needed to qualify for Air Transport Pilot certification from 250 to 1,500. About 40 percent of pilots still active in the industry are going to be retiring within the next decade — retirement is mandatory at age 65 at most airlines — and the high cost of training has kept many young people away.
But a career as an airline pilot can be lucrative. While entry-level salaries average about $60,000 a year, not including bonuses, a pilot who achieves captain level after about 10 years can make $300,000 or more.
“When I first went to college to become an engineer, pilots graduated with over $100,000 worth of student debt,” Blandon said. “They would get jobs living on the poverty line. Now entry-level jobs are much higher in pay. Wages have increased significantly because of the unions.”
Pilots can also get work flying cargo planes or corporate jets, or in aviation operations ranging from agriculture to mapping surveys.
Prospective pilots can train at a flight club or flight school — and they are different, Blandon said. As a membership organization, a flight club can provide training and aircraft time at cheaper rates than a flight school.
“Because we have members that contribute dues, we are capable of passing those savings on to the members,” Blandon said.
Arapahoe Flight Club charges its members $110 an hour to fly planes and $45 per hour for instruction, whereas a flight school will charge up to $250 an hour for air time and $60 or more per hour for instruction, he said.
The club also is “a more inclusive environment,” he said. “We try to create a family environment where members can share their experiences. We try to make it more fun.”
The flight club provides the same rigorous training that’s given in the military, Blandon said, and he’s well acquainted with those standards.
After graduating from high school, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps as an aircraft mechanic. After his discharge in 2001, he earned a bachelor of science in aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida; a master of science in the same fields from the University of Alabama; and an MBA at Embry-Riddle.
He worked as an engineer for Gulfstream Aerospace, Boeing and FedEx Aviation before joining the U.S. Army in January 2013, serving as a helicopter pilot.
He left the Army last year and works as an aerospace engineer at the Missile Defense Agency at Schriever Air Force Base in addition to running the flight club.
Blandon cashed in his retirement savings to cover startup expenses, which included the cost of two airplanes and the tools to maintain them. The club owns two Piper low-wing airplanes and leases a Baron D55, which is used for multi-engine training.
He plans to add a flight simulator by the end of this year, but his primary goal is to obtain Veterans Administration certification, which will enable the club to get reimbursement through the GI Bill.
Arapahoe Flight Club offers two tracks for students. One is tailored to transition trained helicopter pilots to fixed-wing aircraft; the second is for students with no experience.
Blandon said it takes novice students 14 to 16 months to accrue the 1,500 hours needed for certification, but the timing depends upon individual students’ experience and how many hours a week they’re able to spend in training.
“Everything is pretty much at the pace of the student,” he said.
Arapahoe Flight Club currently has 10 members.
“We’re growing slowly but surely,” Blandon said. “Once we get VA certification, it’s going to skyrocket.”