- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

DAYTON, Ohio (AP) | Ivan Nogalo often can hear small planes buzzing over his machine shop in Cleveland.

“You want to be up there,” he said.

But Mr. Nogalo, 33, can’t be. The would-be pilot has been grounded because the economy has forced him to tighten his belt.

It’s the same for Ryan Fisher, who spent an estimated $10,000 on flying lessons before losing his job with a real estate developer. He was two weeks short of being certified as a private pilot when he couldn’t afford further training.

“It’s frustrating,” said Mr. Fisher, 37, of Cleveland Heights. “I miss being up in the airplane, that sense of freedom. It’s kind of transcendental.”

The slumping economy has forced some student pilots to put their dreams of flying on hold, threatening to accelerate the decline of the U.S. pilot population and put a financial chokehold on flight schools.

The number of U.S. pilots has fallen more than 25 percent from a 1980 peak of about 827,000 to about 590,000 at the end of 2008, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

While there are no more recent figures, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association is seeing some anecdotal evidence that the economy is taking a toll, said Chris Dancy, spokesman for the Frederick, Md.-based organization.

“Flight training is done with disposable income,” he said. “It is very common in economic down times for flight training to fall off.”

It usually costs between $6,000 and $9,000 to get a private pilot’s license, Mr. Dancy said.

Ryan Gessel, 26, of San Francisco, has wanted to fly for nearly three years, hoping to fly for pleasure and to see clients in Northern California as an account manager for a brewing company. He began taking flying lessons last summer and had gotten four or five hours under his belt when the economy went into a nosedive.

Mr. Gessel’s salary became uncertain, and while he has since gotten a new position in the company, he is not sure how much he’ll be paid. “There is a lot of uncertainty, so I didn’t see it as the smartest move to put $10,000 into something that isn’t really considered a priority,” he said. “It’s kind of frustrating. But the dream is definitely still there.”

Economic conditions also have forced some pilots who already have licenses to give up flying.

Flying lessons are down 50 percent from a year ago at the New Flyers Association, a flight club at the Ohio State University Airport in Columbus that has seven airplanes and 120 members. President Dick Willis blames the economy and the uncertain financial futures of the students.

“They don’t know what’s going to happen,” Mr. Willis said. “They’re keeping their money in their mattresses.”

At Moraine Airpark in suburban Dayton, the pool of students has dwindled from 30 to 10. The school accounts for about 25 percent of the airport’s income.

“It hurts us pretty bad,” manager George Bockerstette said.

Bill Kronenberger, manager of the flight school at the Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport, said many prospective students can’t get loans to fund their training.

He said some students are opting for the less expensive sport pilot license instead of the private license. Sport pilots are limited to flying smaller planes with fewer passengers and cannot fly at night, in bad weather or congested air space. But the license costs half as much and can be obtained twice as fast.

The licenses became available in 2005, and there are 2,600 sport pilots nationwide.

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