Friday, December 8, 2023

The Williamsburg Flight Center Provides Locals a Pathway to Careers

The Williamsburg Flight Center’s planes lined up on the runway. (WYDaily/Dominic Catacora)

WILLIAMSBURG — The flight instructors at The Williamsburg Flight Center have met students and hobbyists from all different walks of life.

Some of the students are looking to get a headstart on their careers and might be as young as juniors and seniors in high school. Others are well off into their 60’s and are simply looking to master a new skill. Regardless of what the customer’s age and background are, the instructors have managed to create a culture of local aviation hobbyists who all enjoy flying over the surrounding area.

Everyone who goes to check out one of the planes at the Flight Center has their reasons for doing so. However, a common reason in the past year was to just get out of the house and escape the world for a brief moment.

“People came in here and they were just like, ‘Cool, this is my utopia. This is where I can escape,'” said Williamsburg Flight Center Owner Shaun Stewart in an interview with WYDaily. “When COVID[-19] hit, we really just thought we were going to be in trouble. What we found was that some people kind of got scared off when COVID[-19] hit. I’d say maybe about ten to fifteen percent. It was a lot of the older population, which is completely understandable, but we also had a lot of people that just wanted to escape and they did so by coming out here and learning to fly. We had a really busy year last year. I think it was our busiest year on record.”

The Williamsburg Flight Center is located at the Williamsburg Jamestown Airport; a privately-owned regional airport located at 100 Marclay Dr. in Williamsburg, which is open for public use. It’s one of the few in the state of Virginia that operates like that. The airport has been around for half a century and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020.

There are many sides to The Flight Center that make it a place of refuge for local aviators to escape to.

The Flight School

Certified Flight Instructor Austin Vigil maneuvers his airplane over the James River. (WYDaily/Dominic Catacora)

First, there is the flight school. The flight school is the bedrock of the entire operation. The school has a track record of creating licensed pilots that have gone on to land successful careers as airline pilots and military pilots. The school has a 90% success rate when people go to take their final flight test; a rate which Stewart says is actually above the industry standard. Some of their students have gone on to fly F-18’s, F-35’s, F-16’s, and all kinds of commercial aircraft. Stewart and the other flight school instructors are also proud of the fact that they’ve seen four of their students go on to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy.

“It’s a great feeling because we didn’t have a lot of capital when we first started the business. So whenever we made money we had to be really careful with how we spent it,” said Stewart. “Then we began to slowly grow over the years. As soon as an airplane will get to compacity, where it’s being booked every day, we add another one. We just added a fifth airplane and we have four instructors here.”

The Flight Center has also taken additional measures to help provide a career stepping stone for locals in the area. They’ve set up a scholarship program a couple of years ago called the Williamsburg Aviation Scholarship Program (WASP). The Flight Center is currently teaching the sixth class of WASP recipients that consists of nine students who are getting a full scholarship up to 50 hours. The scholarship is run by a board of directors that helps to organize fundraising every year and it’s all completely non-profit.

Stewart says that part of the reason why the Flight Center takes pride in the scholarship and setting people up with careers in the airline industry is that there is a huge pilot shortage. In the airline industry, there are a lot of pilots retiring because they’re at the mandatory retirement age of 65.

View of the James River from the side of the plane. (WYDaily/Dominic Catacora)

“It’s not even looming, it’s here. There’s a pilot shortage, and it’s going to happen for the next 10-15 years,” said Stewart. “So there is a huge opportunity for a very lucrative career for someone who wants to go through with this career track.”

The career track requires a student to have a minimum of 40 hours. That’s a requirement created by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“The 40 hours are broken down into all kinds of different requirements. For example, three of those 40 hours have to be nighttime,” said Stewart. “Another one is three hours of simulated instrument time where you put a view limiting device on. That way you can scan your instruments better.”

Once the student gets 40 hours of required time they are then tested on proficiency which is called the Airman Certification Standards.

“There’s a whole list of tolerances for each maneuver that a student has to learn in order to fly the airplane but then you also have to fly the airplane to a certain tolerance for each maneuver and you’re going to be tested on that,” said Stewart. “They pass that and then they get their license indefinitely.”

The Repair Shop

An aircraft’s engine was exposed for tune-ups at the Flight Center’s repair shop. (WYDaily/Dominic Catacora)

The second side to the Flight Center is their repair shop. They provide upkeep and maintenance for planes at the regional airport, but also for the Cessna 172 Skyhawks (C-172) that are used in the flight school. The repair shop updates the avionics, the engines get overhauled, and the airframes are always inspected.

“They just go and go and go for decades,” said Stewart. “They’re used for trainers, and they’ve been around since 1955. They use them as trainers because they’re so good at what they do. They’re not going to break speed records, but that’s not what you need them to do. They’re very economical, very reliable, and easy to teach people.”

The Air Tours

View of boats sailing on the James River from the air. (WYDaily/Dominic Catacora)

The third aspect of the business is the Flight Center’s air tours that will allow visitors to fly over the James River and well-known locations like Colonial Williamsburg, William & Mary, and Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

The air tours take place in the Cessna planes and are flown by one of the flight instructors. The planes feature room for 3 passengers for a maximum weight of 525 lbs.

The Mission

“When you create a pilot that’s really good at what they do you create a pilot that’s good wherever they end up flying,” said Stewart. “We really pride ourselves on our initial pass rating which is above 90%. So we want to create good quality safe pilots and the mission is slow steady growth.”

Stewart says that he is proud of the work that all of his students and instructors have done in recent years and that they are always there for local community members.

“I think we’re accomplishing a lot! It’s definitely a good hobby for the mind as well. It expands the mind,” Stewart said.

Those seeking more information can visit the Williamsburg Flight Center website or their Facebook page.

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