NEW SMYRNA BEACH, Fla. - Ever since taking his first flight when he was 8 years old, Javier Martinez has dreamed of becoming a captain with a major airline.
But with the high cost of flight school, which can exceed $60,000 to earn the certifications necessary to fly for a commercial airline, it appeared Martinez would be permanently grounded.
"After high school I wanted to become a pilot, but the funding was never there," said Martinez, who discovered that traditional student loans are not available for vocational training. "One of the main reasons pilots never finish training is the funding. They run out of money and then they have to quit."
Even more frustrating, Martinez felt he was missing out on what some consider to be one of the best times ever to enter the aviation industry.
With Federal Aviation Administration rules requiring commercial pilots to retire at the age of 65, a large wave of Baby Boomers are about to hang up their pilot's hats at the same time regional airlines are increasing pay and benefits to attract younger employees.
That pilot shortage is also making it more challenging and expensive for passengers to travel, some industry experts believe.
"(The airlines) are not able to hire the numbers they want, so they have scaled back on flights," said Danny Perna.
Perna, the founder of Epic Flight Academy, was being hurt by the pilot shortage because he was unable to attract enough experienced pilots to work at his flight school as instructors.
"For years we had a stack of (pilots') resumes, and that stack got smaller and smaller," he said.
Perna's solution was a sponsorship program.
Under the program, which Perna said was the first-of-its-kind in the industry, the flight school would help pay the tuition for promising cadets.
In exchange, those students would be required to work at Epic Flight Academy as instructors for approximately two years as they logged the 1,500 flight hours required to become professional airline pilots.
"We went from zero resumes to 150 resumes the next day," said Perna.
Since beginning the sponsorship program in 2014, Perna said Epic Flight Academy has helped about 100 student pilots with financing ranging from $2,000 to $40,000.
"My mom pretty much put everything on the line to get me here," said Kayla Keith, a current Epic student who previously took courses at another Volusia County flight school before finances got tight.
"Honestly, they don't ask for a lot in return," Keith said. "You have to be a flight instructor anyway, so why would I not come here?"
Zack Zois, a New Smyrna Beach High School graduate, grew up watching aircraft take off from the nearby municipal airport where Epic Flight Academy operates. He now works as an instructor there.
"Right now I'm working to pay almost all of (the tuition) back, so it's really nice to be kind of debt free," said Zois, who hopes to eventually fly for a major airline or cargo transport company and potentially earn a six-figure salary.
"They're hurting for pilots," Zois said. "Basically, you have the pick of where you want to go."
Mils Thindwa, who has a master's degree in public policy, was working at a nonprofit, but dreamed about a different career in the sky.
"It was looking bleak for a while," said Thindwa, who had a private pilot license but struggled to afford additional training. "I was going to settle doing that 9-to-5 Washington D.C. commute, but now I'm able to come out here and help other pilots achieve their dreams."
By the time he's completed his 1,500-hour requirement as a flight instructor, Thindwa will only owe a relatively small amount of tuition.
"With the airlines offering large bonuses now, that really won't be a problem to overcome," he said.
Martinzez struggled to leave his wife, daughter and newborn son back home in Arizona to attend the flight school, but he said he is excited about the new opportunities that await them.
"It was a big sacrifice, but I really wanted to be a pilot," he said.
Now that Epic Flight Academy has recruited plenty of instructors while exhausting its sponsorship funds, the school recently discontinued its financing program.
However, Perna said he believes his funding model has proven so successful that he thinks airlines and financial institutions will eventually replicate it.
"(The airlines) need pilots. Pilots need education. Somebody needs to pay for it," Perna said. "I am hoping this is the beginning of the story and not the end."
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