Leaving on a jet plane: Aspen Flight Academy students to benefit annually from new Diamond aircraft
BETTYFLIES VIRTUAL RENDEZVOUS
What: An online event to help raise scholarship money for the BettyFlies Foundation
When: Wednesday, Aug. 5, 6 p.m.
Who: Speakers will include retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott
How: Go to bettyflies.org to sign up
From six figures in debt to owning two brand-new aircraft, Mike Pearce has guided the Aspen Flight Academy to soaring new heights in only a few years. And it’s those two new planes that really mark a new era for the nonprofit organization that seeks to train the next generation of pilots.
“This just becomes fun. We started with two similar type aircraft, but this is a real ginormous leap forward for our program,” Pearce said. “There is nobody in the nation that can compete with that. We are so far ahead of any other high school anywhere in the United States, and that’s really a cool thing.”
Pearce, who is the chairman of the AFA board and a longtime pilot for American Airlines, could have spent all day talking about the new aircraft. Kate Short, AFA’s director of aviation and its lead instructor, had the honor of shepherding the aircraft from Detroit to their new home at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport last week.
The two Diamond DA40 NG’s are exactly that — “Next Generation” — and will provide local students with the latest technology in pursuit of their piloting goals. On Tuesday, Pearce and Short showed off the aircraft to new Aspen School District Superintendent David Baugh, as well as Tharyn Mulberry, the former Aspen High School principal turned assistant superintendent.
“I couldn’t be happier with the work that Mike and Kate and the entire flight academy has done for aviation at the high school,” said Mulberry, whose wife is a former pilot. “Having the opportunity to have two brand-new airplanes at the high school is an absolutely, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students, and I’m excited the Aspen community is the first to share in it. It’s going to be great.”
The new DA40 NG’s replaced two older DA40 aircraft, part of a 10-year deal Pearce negotiated with Diamond Aircraft Industries. That deal is for the Aspen Flight Academy to purchase two brand-new Diamond aircraft each year, which they are receiving at a discounted rate. The planes typically go for about $600,000 each.
They can afford this in part by selling the “old” aircraft each year, meaning the AFA students will have the newest, best trainers for the next decade, at least. The planes Short helped bring to Aspen last week were the first two planes of that 10-year deal.
“We will stay, for the next decade, on the cutting edge of technology for our high school students,” Pearce said. “We are pushing the envelope with cutting edge technology for our students on every aspect of this airplane.”
The Diamond DA40 NG’s seat four and feature a turbocharged, diesel engine with more than enough power for the altitude here in the Rocky Mountains. The Mercedes-Benz engine blocks are manufactured in Austria, and use lead-free fuel that burns at half the rate as the old DA40s. They also have one of the highest safety ratings of any similar training aircraft on the market.
“The old Diamonds were great, but these are much more simple to fly and much more powerful,” Short said. “These also have state-of-the art avionics. The interior of the cockpit looks more and more like an airliner does. So our students get the opportunity to experience perhaps what their future career might look like.”
Speaking of careers, Pearce sees this as the perfect time for students to get into aviation. While the novel coronavirus pandemic has decimated the travel industry, it will return as COVID-19 fades. The problem stems from a lack of pilots, an issue the industry has faced for years and will only see worsen going forward as many pilots head into retirement with no one to replace them.
But, for the current high school trainees who are anywhere from four to seven years out from being ready, this could be their ticket to a lucrative career.
“Our industry is facing the largest shortage of employees ever in the history of commercial aviation,” Pearce said. “Our idea is to launch them out of here with all the tools in their backpack to be successful participants in the aviation community.”
FUNDING THE NEXT GENERATION
One way to make sure area students are at the forefront of this hopeful resurgence is to make sure they have the financial means to take part in the Aspen Flight Academy programming. This is where the BettyFlies Foundation steps in, another local nonprofit run by Suzanne Pfister, who is the daughter of the foundation’s namesake, Betty Haas Pfister, a former Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) during World War II.
“A career in aviation is an excellent career. It’s an enjoyable career and can provide students or adults with lots of benefits,” Short said. “But it’s very expensive to get started with, so having a scholarship opportunity, especially when you’re young, can provide you with many opportunities down the road.”
In its first year last summer, BettyFlies raised $60,000 in need-based scholarships for five students, as well as an additional $100,000 for its “Every Student Flies” program, which seeks to give all ASD students — and some staff — a chance to experience life as a pilot for at least one day. BettyFlies also seeks to raise money for various STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs in the valley.
Despite some setbacks because of COVID-19 this summer, Pfister hopes to raise just as much or more in scholarship dollars as they did last summer.
“This is for students who are on a pro pilot track. They are not just there trying to get their license. I hope they are looking at this as some kind of career. That’s the idea,” she said. “Kate told me she had 10 kids that were waiting for scholarships this year. And it will break my heart … it will really break my heart if I can’t find funding for those children. I’m really determined.”
In lieu of an in-person event this summer, BettyFlies is hosting a “virtual rendezvous” at 6 p.m. Wednesday via Zoom. The free, live talk includes a presentation by former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott. The event is intended to be the largest fundraiser of the year for BettyFlies.
“All five of them will be some of our first students back up in the air,” Short said of this year’s scholarship recipients, who will get to be among the first to try out the new DA40 NG’s. “They are really excited, and I know the BettyFlies Foundation is working on raising more money for more students to have this opportunity next year.”
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The Aspen School District’s budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year is shaping up stronger than the pandemic-bogged finances from last year, according to district Chief Financial Officer Linda Warhoe.“We’re getting our head above water and we’re coming up on shore,” Warhoe said in an interview last week.