Sky High

Brad Goins Thursday, December 5, 2019 Comments Off on Sky High
Sky High


By Brad Goins

Joe Whitbeck, Tim Castle and Justin Holt
Photo By Chris Brennan •

Aviation is an ideal topic for a section on business and industry. Central to the field are such key business concepts as the need for capital, hard work and job opportunities.

Whether one is learning to pilot for fun or profit, you can’t become a pilot without having some capital. Nor can you do it without mastering the skills of working hard and putting in long hours.

What’s more, piloting is a huge overarching industry that’s an umbrella for a host of aviation industries, many of which the public is entirely unaware of. The compensation for working in these industries is lucrative. And quite a few of them are short of employees at present.

Let’s look at the ways in which piloting has affected the professional and personal lives of several area businessmen.

Nick Landry

Lake Charles native Nick Landry is an airline pilot. “It’s pretty much all business,” says Landry, “but it’s still fun.”

Like others in this story, he’s drawn to the challenge of flying. And, he says, “it’s somewhat of an escape. You’re so focused on flying; you’re enjoying the moment.”

Joe Whitbeck’s 1977 CESSNA 177RG
Photo By Chris Brennan •

Landry has a “vivid memory” of going to the Lake Charles Regional Airport when he was a young child to greet his father when he returned from trips. He saw the planes and decided early on what he wanted to do with his future. He started taking flying lessons once or twice a month at the age of 14. 

At a later age, he would train for his various flight certificates at Louisiana Tech. “Everything I had went into that. It took a while. It was a money pit for five years.”

Landry grew up in Lake Charles. But he’s now based in Houston. He doesn’t see much point in buying a permanent house as he’s continually flying all over the country. 

As for the job, “everything’s very standardized. Everyone’s trained to do the job the same way.” And even though every airline pilot knows the job, they still use a checklist.

Landry experienced a bit of a “shock” when he became aware of “all the different personalities you come in contact with” as an airline pilot. “I’m sitting in a tiny box with some guy. We’ve got to get along for two days.” Most of his co-pilots are amenable. But once in a while, he must tolerate one who is not.

Even with all the flying he does for his job, Landry will take the occasional flight on his own and “go where he likes.” In his spare time, he stays immersed in the field of flight, watching aviation-related movies and reading books about World War II “war birds.”

Joe Whitbeck

When he was four years old, Joe Whitbeck developed a solid understanding of what his father did as an Air Force mechanic in Korea. In later years, Whitbeck’s dad used his skills to combine two Aircoupes to make one plane. Father and son flew around the country in the plane — going to airshows, looking at planes and talking to pilots. Whitbeck recalls the “joy” of watching his father fly.

View of San Francisco from the cockpit
of Lake Charles native and commercial
airline pilot Nick Landry.

As a youth, Whitbeck also flew as a passenger on commercial flights to visit relatives in Albany, N.Y. He realized he “loved commercial planes.”

As he moved into his professional life, his hobby of choice was golf. But recently, Whitbeck, who is now 56, decided his body was no longer able to give him the quality of game that he wanted. 

And so he decided to learn to fly. At the age of 55.

Whitbeck says that golfing and flying have one thing in common: they’re “not for the person on a budget.” One has to rent planes and pay flight instructors. And many, many hours of instruction will have to be paid for. Whitbeck says it took him a “solid year” to get his Private Pilot’s License.

It’s not always easy to secure the services of a Certified Flight Instructor, or CFI. There’s a great demand for them, and there aren’t always enough to go around. Many CFIs only work part-time and have other jobs.

Lake Charles native Nick Landry is a commercial airline pilot based out of Houston.

Whitbeck says that to get his Private Pilot’s License he had to go to three CFIs at two airports.

Whitbeck took a long road to get his “ticket,” or Private Pilot’s License. After flying many required hours with a CFI, he had to spend a set number of hours flying solo and then another set number flying maneuvers. After that, he had to take a “check ride” with a CFII (Certified Flight Instructor—Instrument). Then, after passing an oral test, he was given a flight test. As long as he flies, he must get a CFI check and a health exam every two years.

Whitbeck estimates he spent $13,000 getting his pilot’s license. But he wasn’t finished. He bought partnerships in two planes: a Cessna 182 and a Cessna Cardinal 177. Since the price tag for an airplane is so high, groups of pilots often contribute to the overall price and become part-owners. “You pretty much need to own a business to own a plane,” says Whitbeck.

With his Private Pilot’s License, Whitbeck can have no more than three passengers in a plane he’s piloting. And he can’t pilot for hire. But he seems happy enough.

“I fly for enjoyment,” he says. “I do joy rides. I practice my maneuvers.” Flying gives him a sense of freedom. While he finds take-off and landing “stressful,” he also finds them exhilarating. And he enjoys bringing family members or “people who don’t know about flight” into his plane.

View of Sierra Nevada Mountain Range from the cockpit of Lake Charles native and commercial airline pilot Nick Landry

Whitbeck is also highly appreciative of what he sees as a tremendous practical benefit of flying. “It’s not fun to drive eight hours somewhere,” he says. In the past, Whitbeck sometimes made an 11-hour drive to a location in Oklahoma. Now he flies the distance in three hours. He recently flew to New Orleans in an hour; ate a po-boy; then flew back to Lake Charles in an hour. Flying, says Whitbeck, is “often a timesaver.”

There are ways to shave dollars off the costs of piloting. Whitbeck notes that the GI Bill will pay for the costs of training with CFIs. “We hope some young kids get involved with training,” he says. The need is pressing. “There’s a huge shortage of community pilots.”

Whitbeck asserts that “there are a lot of businessmen in town who fly.” Indeed, during the course of our interview, he told me that one local businessman, Tim Castle, had gotten his Private Pilot’s License just half an hour earlier.

Tim Castle

Tim Castle deliberated for a long time before he decided to try to get his license. He felt that the process of getting a license was so demanding that a license would be “unobtainable.” 

Joe Whitbeck after completing his first solo flight.

But he eventually took the plunge and began his training at Plane Simple at the Lake Charles Regional Airport.

At first, he did find it a real challenge to grasp the material he was studying. When he prepared for the FAA written test he would eventually have to take, he found that mastering all the FAA terminology was “like learning a foreign language.” 

At a certain point, his flight instructor suggested it was time to stop studying and start flying. “How will it make sense if you don’t fly?” he asked Castle.

The student learned his teacher was correct. “I started flying. I put all the pieces of the puzzle together.”

When Castle met the traditional requirement of 40 hours of flight, he still was not comfortable with all the maneuvers he was expected to do. He wanted to keep doing them until he reached a level of comfort. By the time he got his license, he had flown 50 hours with his instructor (what’s known as “dual control”) and 25 hours on his own.

“You learn the best when you fly by yourself,” says Castle. He feels that flying solo is less stressful because the pilot isn’t required to deal with the frequent suggestions of an instructor. When he makes a misstep on his own, he finds himself thinking, “I won’t make that mistake again.”

Joe Whitbeck after flying a C172 trainer.

Castle was finally finished with all his instruction when an FAA instructor gave him an oral exam and went with him on a check ride. Castle was officially a private pilot.

Castle confirmed that he paid a high price to get the pilot’s license. “It’s ridiculous what we pay for it. But at the end of the day, it’s our rest, our relaxation, our sanity. You can’t put a price on that …” Flying can substitute for hobbies that no longer exist or no longer satisfy. “The population has changed. Hunting leases aren’t available. You can only go to the gym so much.”

Castle enjoys the camaraderie shared by private pilots in the area. These pilots tend to congregate around the FBO — fixed base operations — at the Lake Charles Regional Airport. They get to the FBO without having to go through the terminal. At the FBO they can hang out, chat, fuel up. Of the FBO pilots, Castle says, “we’re all businesspeople.”

Castle feels that the biggest problem with the local aviation industry is lack of hangar space. He says that most local pilots go to the FBO at the Regional Airport simply because they live close to it. But he thinks that if Chennault built “T-hangars” designed for private pilots, pilots would go to Chennault.

“We love Chennault,” he says. Pilots are quite pleased with the experience of landing on Chennault’s super-wide runway. Castle feels Chennault would derive financial benefit from having many pilots fuel up on its premises. More to the point, it would be “getting the right people [affluent businessmen pilots] out there …”

Tim Castle (right) with his flight instructor Frank Lopez.

And, he says, if Chennault held “fly-ins,” it would be “getting business people from around the state.” A fly-in is an event at which many pilots fly in and congregate with each other. Often, food is served. 

Beaumont has a fly-in once every quarter. Castle tells of gathering with other pilots at the FBO and watching as one local pilot after another takes off for the Beaumont fly-in. 

Castle sees fly-ins as an ideal way of getting young people interested in a career in aviation. “You’re cultivating a group of future pilots,” he says, with the ultimate objective of establishing “a sustainable group of pilots.”

All the pilots I spoke with for the story find great personal satisfaction in flying. Castle says that when you fly, “you get to leave the stress of life on the ground.” You get the satisfaction that comes from being able to navigate “from point A to B.” People fly because they like to; “when you’re flying, you enjoy aviation.”

He says pilots get to see the earth from a “new perspective.” The earth loses the dominance, size and imposing presence it has for drivers. “When you take off [from the Lake Charles Regional Airport],” says Castle, “you see Carlyss immediately.” You notice just how much water there is in Southwest Louisiana.

And Castle appreciates the fact that flying is an activity he can share with family and friends. “We fly and just enjoy the beautiful day.”

Wilson Brown

When DeRidder’s Wilson Brown went to Louisiana Tech, he started off studying forestry. A student in one of Brown’s general classes told him about her experiences in the school’s aviation program. Brown was so intrigued that he didn’t just enroll in an aviation class. He changed his major to aviation.

Tim Castle’s view from a recent flight.

After 11 months of work, he obtained his Private Pilot’s License.

He was devoted to his new field of study. “Once you get behind the ‘yoke’ [also known as the control wheel] it gets in your blood. There’s a whole culture behind it.” The community of local pilots, he says, is “tight-knit.” And the field of aviation offers “wonderful career opportunities.”

“I’ve never looked back,” he says.

Brown estimates he spent $20,000 before he could obtain his basic Private Pilot’s License. Piloting, he says, “is expensive. It’s a big dedication. It’s a huge time commitment. There’s a lot of learning. You can’t [practice flying] once a month.”

Brown established the Propell Air flight school in DeRidder in July, 2018. The school operates out of Beauregard Regional Airport in an office that became available at the time when Brown wanted to start the school. “There wasn’t a whole lot of headache in starting” the business.

Wilson Brown behind the “yoke.”

Brown points out that many CFIs are working their way up the long ladder that will eventually make them pilots for an airline. He feels a great deal of trepidation about taking that approach. Just for starters, he doesn’t want to let down his students.

“The students are at the mercy of us. I want to make sure that I finish all the students who started with me.”

And he finds substantial perks in being a flight instructor. “I am my own boss. I really enjoy teaching. I create the learning environments.”

He admits that he does “work very long hours.”

Brown says the country is presently experiencing “one of the greatest aviation booms since World War II.” The reason is simple — the “airlines suck up pilots.” But Wilson wants people to know that the overall aviation industry is eager to fill a wide variety of posts that provide a very good paycheck. There are, he says, “so many opportunities.

“There is this great, high-paying industry out there. There are so many [piloting] opportunities outside the military and airlines that people don’t know about.” There’s a need for those who can do high (forest fire patrol) flying or crop dusting. Louisiana alone has 13 planes it uses for fire fighting. There’s a lack of aviation maintenance workers; Sowela offers coursework in the trade. 

And of course, we’ve seen over and over in this story that there’s a need for Certified Flight Instructors. Brown feels there are three different types of instructors. First, there are those who are “building time” and “working hard” with the objective of ultimately becoming an airline pilot. Second, there are professional CFIs, such as Brown. Third, there are CFIs who are retired, working part-time or instructing as a hobby. “They’re great instructors,” says Brown. They’re doing the job because they want to; not because they feel they have to.”

“It’s been one of the greatest industries.” In its 106-year history, “it’s made leaps and bounds greater than any other industry.” 

If you’re one of the lucky people who can pilot solely as a hobby, Brown is behind you. “It’s one of the most fun hobbies,” he says. “It’s extremely rewarding.”

Alex Kerbow

Alex Kerbow became interested in flying at the young age of 14 when he chatted with a pilot he sat next to on a mission trip from DeRidder to Honduras. “Ever since then I’ve been hooked on it,” he says.

Alex Kerbow and Steve Thompson.

At the age of 15 he started taking flying lessons; at 16 he was soloing and at 17 he got his private pilot’s license. Some might think this was rapid progress. But Kerbow says, “I kind of took my time. I had time to kill.”

After he got his license, Kerbow met Steve Thompson, a professor at McNeese State University. Thompson was a skydiver at the time, and was a member of the Parapokes team that parachutes into Cowboy Stadium for each McNeese football home game. 

Thompson told Kerbow the Parapokes needed a pilot to fly them into the stadium, and Kerbow gladly agreed to do the job.

As time went by, Thompson got Kerbow into skydiving and Kerbow got Thompson into piloting. Eventually, they both got their certified flying instructor licenses. Thompson proposed the two start a flight school.

At the time, there was a flight instruction school at the Lake Charles Regional Airport, but it was running out of steam. Kerbow and Thompson acquired the building and two airplanes. The Plane Simple flight school opened in April, 2018.

“It’s been extremely busy with the pilot shortage,” says Kerbow. He describes the shortage as “massive.” Airlines are paying his flight school from $50,000 to $70,000 to take a prospective pilot through the training process. “They’re desperate” to get pilots, he says.

Soon, Kerbow will receive his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. But he will continue with his work in the flight school. “We have no intentions of stopping anytime soon,” he says. The only thing keeping the school from buying more planes is its own lack of flight instructors.

Busy as he is, Kerbow says that “every couple of weeks, I’ll fly for pure enjoyment and to keep myself grounded.”

He says the same thing about flying that all the others say: “It’s stress relief. You have to focus on what you’re doing.”

Kerbow wants the public to know that people who want to learn to fly can do so. “People think it’s unachievable. Average, everyday people can learn to fly. It’s more affordable than they think.” He suggests that those who are considering learning but have doubts call a flight instructor. Kerbow says instructors are more than happy to answer any questions put to them.

Justin Holt

Justin Holt is an executive vice president with Lakeside Bank. He’s spent the last seven to eight months working on getting his pilot’s license.

Justin Holt and wife Kallie during a recent flight with friends.

He’s “always had an interest in aviation.” As a young boy, he liked to watch airplanes as they flew through the sky.

He discussed this lingering interest with his wife, and last year, she encouraged him to start working towards his license. She told him it was a good idea to do something he was passionate about.

Holt stayed in his flight training because it was a challenge. “I love a challenge,” he says. 

He says he’s in the “final stage” of getting his license. But time, he says, is his enemy. He thinks that if he could devote two or three solid days to flying, he’d be in a position to take his check flight and officially become a pilot. But with four children, a block of two or three days is hard to find. There’s football every Friday night; school activities on the other nights.

Hours of solo flight have led him to experience extremely positive elements of the pursuit. “It’s a stress release for me,” he says. He notes that as an outdoorsman, he has long experienced the serenity of being in woods. Flying, he says, “is a multiple of that.” It gives him a sense of “calmness.”

Technological Innovation

In 2019, all industry is affected, to a greater or lesser degree, by cyber technology. GPS technology is rapidly changing the nature of piloting.

“Today’s planes are exponentially safer than the planes of 15 to 20 years ago,” says Whitbeck. 

View of Houston from the plane flying the Holts and their friends to a recent Astros playoff game.

Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast equipment — or ADS-B — sends meticulously detailed information about a plane and its flight to air traffic controllers. The equipment exists in two forms: ADS-B Out and ADS-B In.

ADS-B Out sends information about a plane’s air speed, altitude and location. It shows other planes where the plane is located. This data is transmitted once a second, compared to up to once every 15 seconds for radar.

ADS-B In is the receiver for all data that is transmitted. It posts the data on the screen of a device that’s the size of a tablet. This receiver is called the EFB — for “electronic flight bag.” It got this name because it replaced the 37-pound bag of manuals and charts that pilots previously had to lug into their cockpits. Anyone who is willing to pay for ADS-B In technology can use it in his plane.

As of Jan. 1, 2020, most airplanes in the U.S. will be required to fly with ADS-B technology.

For eight years, the Garmin corporation worked on a device that would land an airplane if the pilot became incapacitated or if the weather was too severe to permit a pilot to land. Suppose the lone pilot of a small plane has a severe heart attack. The Garmin Autoland will fly the plane from a cruising altitude to a nearby runway. It will then land the plane, apply the brakes and turn off the engine. It can also operate anti-icing or de-icing systems if the pilot is unable to.

Whitbeck says revolutionary innovations such as these are “driven by the economy.” People place a premium on the dozens of valuable uses of planes and will pay the price to keep aviation in the forefront of American business.

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