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Thursday, April 1, 2004

Financing Help

James T. McKenna

A new foundation is partnering with Schweizer Aircraft to make it easier for flight schools to acquire aircraft and for students to use them.

A nonprofit foundation set up to promote flying careers by offering financing to student pilots is spreading its wings to cover rotorcraft-and Schweizer Aircraft Corp. may be a big beneficiary of the move.

The Elmira, N.Y.-based aircraft maker and aerospace subcontractor has reached an agreement with the Pilot Career Foundation to offer preferential pricing on its aircraft to flight schools that are members of the foundation.

That already has spurred interest from non-Schweizer customers in acquiring the company's 300CBi trainers, according to Barbara Tweedt, Schweizer's point person in arranging the agreement. That pact also could increase the pool of pilots who learn to fly in a Schweizer and go on to own one.

"To us, it's a big deal," Tweedt said.

It's also a big deal to the foundation, said that group's executive director, Mark Williams. "The preferential pricing for our members gives them a wider choice of training aircraft options and capabilities," in part by reducing the price gap that typically gives Robinson Helicopter Co. products an edge in such choices.

The foundation is looking to expand its role in rotorcraft training by finding a major operator to partner with it by offering student members a potential career path. It has such an arrangement for fixed-wing pilots with Delta Air Lines' five Delta Connection regional airline partners. Student members who are accepted into the program can complete some of Delta's required training at foundation member schools. They are then guaranteed an interview (not a job) with one of the regionals.

The foundation turns four-years-old next month. It was spun off from program development efforts at Utah Valley State College in Orem, Utah. Williams, who described himself as a Vietnam-era Army aviator who has worked as an instructor and an insurance representative, served as director of aviation programs at the college. This particular program was spun off, he said, to clarify legal and tax divisions between its work and that of the college, and was set up as a 501(c)3 nonprofit foundation under U.S. tax laws.

The foundation's members include flight schools, which pay a $195 monthly membership fee, and student pilots, who pay $120 a year. In return, the students get access to a financing program offering up to $80,000 to cover training and related expenses.

The biggest hurdle to a lifetime of flying helicopters may not be acquiring the skills to control rotorcraft in the air, or building the time needed to become an attractive employee prospect, but finding a way to pay for the training.

Aspiring helicopter pilots must spend $6,000 to $9,000 or more to earn their private pilot's certificate in the United States. It costs $30,000 or more to get the commercial certificate and instructor ratings needed just to be eligible to start making a career in rotorcraft.

Some flight schools require much of that money up front. Some of those fail to make good on their end of the deal, folding before students who have made advanced payment can complete their training. That leaves the students out of money and, perhaps, out of options.

A Training Debit Card

Financing training has always been an option for some, either through government or private loans. A unique aspect of the Pilot Career Foundation's program is that a student's loan from Key Bank, the partnered lender, goes to the foundation, which manages it.

The foundation then issues the student a Flight Card, which can be used like a debit card to pay for training at any of the foundation's member flight schools. The foundation says more than 150 flight schools in the United States are affiliated with it. This approach helps students avoid squandering their loans.

"It's inhuman to put thousands of dollars in a student's bank account and expect them not to spend it on anything but training," he said.

Another unique aspect is that repayment of the loans can be deferred until the student completes an internship as a flight instructor or graduates from a related college course. In some cases, Williams said, the deferral can extend to six years, "at which point the student may be making $60,000 to $80,000 a year and in a much better position to repay it."

In order to qualify for rotary-wing training financing from the foundation, students must enroll in the Utah Valley State College's Global Aviation Program, an Internet-based curriculum. You can find information about the foundation at www.pilotcareer.org

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