Eastern Kentucky University sees explosive growth in aviation program

Posted at 10:32 PM, Jan 24, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-25 11:07:50-05

RICHMOND, Ky. (LEX 18) — If you feel like the skies around Central Kentucky seem a bit busier these days, you're not imagining things.

"The demand for pilots has exploded," said Sean Howard, the chief flight instructor for Eastern Kentucky University's aviation program. "Enrollments are obviously up a lot, probably double since I've been here."

That's likely because of the pilot shortage that's led to abundant job opportunities and some serious pay increases. Boeing forecasts that, over the next 20 years, the global aviation industry will need more than 600,000 new pilots.

"Demand for pilots and retirees is a one-to-one ratio, so we get a pilot trained and in the cockpit and one retires. Right now, we're about 8,000 pilots short, so that's going to stay around for a while until we can exceed the retiree rate," Howard said.

As demand for those pilots increases, so does the pay — more than double for new hires over the last fifteen years or so.

"You're probably talking $35,000 or $40,000 for a first officer, right seat, first time airline job, regional," Howard said of salaries in the mid-2000s. "Now, $90,000, $100,000 in some cases,"

EKU has a fleet of more than 30 aircraft, plus traditional simulators and some cutting-edge ones. There are virtual reality flight simulators at the airport. The devices are not yet certified to count as flight time, but Howard says they are helpful for students polishing their skills.


"It's not certified. It's not that you can log the time, but it's a great addition to training for the students. It gives them a really, an edge up on their training," he said.

As Howard watches more and more student pilots enter the program, he says the sky is anything but a limit.

"In my lifetime, I never thought I would see the industry in the position that it is right now," he said. "For kids interested in airplanes and making flying a career, it's a pilot's market right now,"