Being able to train prospective pilots on electric planes means keeping fuel costs down for students as they rack up hours in the cockpit.
That’s why the president of New Vision Aviation, Joseph Oldham, fought for a grant to purchase four e-planes to train Fresno area students when a Slovenian company debuted them.
For Oldham, keeping flying as affordable as possible means making a lucrative career such as airline pilot more accessible for low-income communities.
And now New Vision Aviation at Fresno Chandler Executive Airport has become the first flight school in the nation to receive clearance from the FAA to use electric planes for training.
“There were really challenges in terms of getting young people from our communities of color into aviation,” Oldham said. “It was pretty much an industry that was dominated by old white guys like me. So we thought this would be a great opportunity for these young people. But the challenge was the cost of entry.”
Convincing the Federal Aviation Administration to accept electric planes for training wasn’t easy. It took Oldham almost five years to get the exemption allowing the aircraft to count toward mandatory training hours.
Measure C Funds Purchase of 4 Electric Aircraft
When Oldham heard about electric aircraft being produced en masse, he jumped at the idea. The private pilot certificate from the FAA requires 40 hours of instruction. One of the Cessnas they have at the school burns about eight gallons an hour. And, at roughly $6.50 a gallon currently, those costs add up.
The cost to charge the e-aircraft is about $5, the plane requires far less maintenance, Oldham said.
He discussed the idea with, among others, Nicole Zieba, city manager for Reedley, one of the two other cities where they keep chargers for their network.
“The idea was to drive down the cost of flight hours for flight training and put them — our lower income families — that they can afford to send their children off to be pilots,” Zieba said.
They sought a grant from the Fresno County Transporation Authority.
With $1 million from Fresno County’s transportation sales tax, Measure C, Oldham placed the order.
New Aviation Had to Prove Electric Planes Are Viable for Training
Even before the Alpha Electro planes arrived in 2018, Oldham met with FAA representatives and the Slovenian manufacturer, Pipestrel, to discuss how they could get the exemption.
The FAA defines aircraft qualified for training as those with a reciprocating engine — something an electric plane doesn’t have.
They developed a training program to get the exemption, which required Oldham to spend 100 hours in the craft, collecting data.
“They were mainly concerned with safety, which, rightfully so,” Oldham said. “Electric propulsion at that time was very new. To them anyway.”
Flying for 100 hours proved to be a challenge. Like a combustion-driven craft, the more you push it, the faster it drains.
“With the testing, about the best I could get was about 40 minutes flying the airplane the way the manufacturers suggested I fly,” Oldham said. He began talking to the engineers and together they optimized the airspeed so that it would extend the battery’s charge more than 20 minutes.
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Boeing estimates a shortage of 602,000 new pilots globally by 2041. A confluence of factors has led to this projected bottleneck.
In 2022, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby in a blog post attributed lengthy training times and costs to the shortage of commercial pilots. It can take $100,000 and five or more years to obtain all the training necessary to fly for a major airline, Kirby said.
Industry publication Aerotime Hub attributed cost-cutting following the 2008 pandemic combined with long training times for the shortfall.
The FAA also mandates that commercial pilots retire at 65 years old.
But the pay can be lucrative. Kirby said pilots of wide-body aircraft can make more than $350,000 a year. Oldham said pilots and aircraft mechanics — which the industry also needs — are getting hired right out of school.
The shortage even brought Boeing to the area for a time. After New Vision Aviation announced its electric plane purchase, Boeing brought in Zieba and Oldham to discuss their plans.
Boeing donated two flight simulators to the area, giving one to Jefferson Elementary School and the other to Reedley College.
For its part, Reedley College invested in a new fleet of more efficient light sport aircraft, according to Jaime Luque, flight science program coordinator at Reedley College. The new aircraft will decrease the cost of the program from $60,000 to $50,000.
“With the new aircraft, operated from Reedley Airport, the college aims to provide more efficient flight training, reducing both fuel consumption and environmental footprint,” Luque said in an email to GV Wire.
Oldham Hopes Exemption Will Bring Other Companies to Fresno
Fresno Unified School District ran a summer camp with New Vision Aviation. That summer camp idea turned into an idea to create a STEM academy at Chandler Airport. Oldham said they’ll have kids as young as 12 at the academy. While they can’t fly, their eyes are opened to the possibilities of an aviation career.
Some pilot certifications can begin at 14 years old.
Josiah Bohanon, 18 years old and a student pilot at New Vision Aviation, caught an interest in flying from that summer camp. It took some convincing at first to think about becoming a pilot but he now has 65 hours logged and is well on his way to getting his certificate.
“I was really quiet in the beginning, then I really started getting into it,” Bohanon said. “He started talking about it more and then, you know, I started enjoying it.”
While the exemption from the FAA isn’t a broad exemption for all electric aircraft, Oldham hopes the status will attract other companies in the aviation industry.
It’s not just the commercial sector that needs pilots. CalFire needs pilots as do charter companies.
“When we really kind of start talking about elevating people out of poverty and cycles of poverty, then you want to look at where they are going to get the biggest income,” Oldham said. “And right now, aviation is a great opportunity.”