Faced with an exodus of pilots, Northwestern Air Lease’s James Heidema says the company’s planned aviation school to nurture northern talent “is definitely going to happen.”

Ten northerners have already signed up for the school, which is set to get off the ground this coming January. Heidema, the Fort Smith company’s chief operating officer, told Cabin Radio students with the time and financial resources could have their commercial pilot’s licence in as little as six months.

The airline is also in talks with Aurora College to offer a two-year aviation management diploma leading to a commercial licence in September 2019.  A partnership with the college would create additional funding opportunities for students, who may not be able to pay tens of thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for a commercial licence.

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Starting a flight school involves significant upfront costs, such as investing $100,000 in upgrading Cessna 172 aircraft; purchasing two more planes and a simulator; hiring a chief instructor to run the school; and readying a location for the ground school.

However, Heidema is confident the company’s plan to train and hire people from the NWT will pay off in the future.

“We want to attract Indigenous and non-Indigenous people from the North [to the aviation school] in hopes that we can slow down the revolving door,” he said, referring to the number of northern pilots leaving for jobs in the south.

The company currently only has two local pilots; Heidema says both intend to stay and work in the community.

‘For the North’

According to Heidema, only half of the estimated 600 to 1,000 pilots operating in the North actually live and work here. The remainder commute from the south. As baby-boomers retire and demand for pilots grows, projections forecast more than half a million pilots will be needed worldwide in the next two decades.

This, Heidema explained, has created a “seller’s market for pilots” who have their pick of the jobs. Northwestern used to only lose captains to larger airlines, but now first officers and ramp attendants are moving on much quicker.

Recently, Air Canada Express operator Air Georgian came to Yellowknife trawling for pilots ready to make the move south.

“It’s disheartening,” said Heidema. “We had one person start on a Monday and leave on a Friday [because they were offered another job].”

Northwestern is partnering with Norman Wells-based North-Wright Airways to run the flight and ground schools.

Between the two airlines, classes of up to 40 students (dependent on the number of instructors) would gain experience flying from Edmonton to Inuvik, operating charters and scheduled flights, and in planes on floats, skis, and wheels.

“This school is not for Northwestern Air Lease,” Heidema said. “It’s for the North.”