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Aircraft companies start with employees when promoting flight training

May 1, 1997

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) _ Robert Foster helps make airplanes, but he had never taken a ride in one.

With an empty stomach and a subsidy from his company, he eyed the plane that would take him for a flying lesson.

``It’s smaller than I thought,″ he said of the Cessna four-seater.

Minutes into his first flight, the instructor let go of the controls and Foster was guiding the plane over fields, lakes and small towns. By the time the 30-minute flight was over, Foster, 19, was talking of getting his pilot’s license.

That’s the reaction that aviation officials want. Last month, they launched a nationwide campaign to lure potential pilots to flight schools.

The goal is to reverse a decline in flight training. According to GA Team 2000, a non-profit group of businesses and organizations affiliated with the aviation industry, the number of people who sign up for flight instruction dropped from more than 130,000 a year in the mid-1970s to about 58,000 in 1996. Aviation officials want to increase that to 100,000 people a year by 2000.

As part of the push for new pilots, some aviation companies are offering to help pay for their employees’ flight training.

In the past, Wichita-based Cessna Aircraft Co., one of many aviation companies participating in GA Team 2000, reimbursed its employees when they completed ground school _ a $210 cost.

But starting this year, the company began offering an extra $1,500 toward their workers’ flight training _ $500 after the first solo flight, and another $1,000 for a private pilot’s license. That covers about half the estimated $3,000 cost of getting a pilot’s license through Cessna’s flying club.

Cessna will pay another $1,000 each for five additional certifications or licenses, including a commercial pilot’s license and instrument rating, which allows pilots to fly in bad weather.

Other companies offer similar programs.

The New Piper Aircraft Inc., based in Vero Beach, Fla., began an employee flight training program in March. The company is providing the planes and covering most of the cost for getting a private pilot’s license.

Like Cessna, Seattle-based Boeing Co. will pay an employee $500 for a solo flight and another $1,000 when a worker earns a private pilot’s license. The New Piper Aircraft is a founding member of GA Team 2000, but Boeing is not a member.

In addition to helping their employees learn to fly the planes they are making, the programs might create more customers if the employees-turned-pilots buy their own small planes. Many aircraft companies scaled back or suspended production of light aircraft because of liability concerns. But after the 1994 enactment of the General Aviation Revitalization Act, manufacturers can only be held responsible for a plane or parts that are 18 years of age or newer. As a result, light aircraft production has increased.

Cessna, which suspended light aircraft production in 1986, opened a new plant last year and expects to manufacture 2,000 single-engine planes a year by 1998. It delivered its first single-engine plane in January.

``You can build the airplanes, but you need the pilots to fly them,″ said Shelly Snyder, spokeswoman for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association.

The GA Team 2000 has started running television and print advertisements with the message ``Stop Dreaming, Start Flying.″ The group also is offering a coupon for a $35 introductory flight lesson.

Foster, a two-month Cessna employee who handbuilds various parts for small airplanes is ready to start lessons to learn how to fly his company’s finished product. With a bird’s eye view of his hometown, he said his first flight was more than he expected, and he wasn’t nervous.

``It sounds like it’d be a lot funner than driving somewhere,‴ he said.

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