“You are all clear for take-off.” As the message came in over the radio from the control tower, Gabby proceeded down the runway, pulled back slowly on the stick, and lifted the Diamond single-engine aircraft up into the autumn sky.
It’s only her fifth time flying a plane, yet Sophomore Gabrielle Garritson is no stranger to aviation. Her mom, Carol, had worked as a flight attendant at United Airlines for 27 years. “I’ve had the blessing of flying for free and visiting beautiful places around the world while growing up,” says Gabby. “One day, I’d like to provide that same opportunity to my family as well.”
Gabby has been interested in a career with the FBI or law enforcement since she was a young girl watching NCIS with her Grandpa, and from hearing stories from her mom about her job in social work. It was no surprise to her family when she chose to major in Criminal Justice.
When her mom heard that Saint Francis was offering a new Aviation program, she first called her pilot friends. “They recommended Gabby take a one-hour Flight Discovery program close to home in Houston. It was $100 for an hour with a pilot instructor in the air to make sure this was what she wanted to do.” Once the participant is in the air, they usually know right away if it’s for them. “At first I freaked out, but then something clicked and everything felt right,” remembers Gabby. “The instructor pilot gave me full control, and that’s when I could see myself going through with it.”
Gabby added the Aviation Concentration to her Criminal Justice major, becoming one of the first students, and the first female, to take advantage of the newly-launched program. This allowed Gabby to combine both her passions, and opened the possibility for a future as an air surveillance pilot for the FBI.
Because of her demanding schedule as a Division I Water Polo athlete, Gabby never thought she’d have the time to add on an Aviation Concentration. Fortunately, her coach has been working with her and the flight instructor at Nulton Aviation to accommodate her flight schedule with practices.
Gabby and fellow Aviation student, Cade Young, plan their flying lessons together so they can rideshare to the airport. “It’s been helpful because when Cade flies, I ride in the back and get to watch his lesson so I feel better-prepared when it’s my turn to fly. In my very first lesson, I was already able to operate the radios and talk with air control,” says Gabby.
The Demand for Pilots
There is a major demand for new pilots both globally and in North America. The number of people flying on commercial airlines has soared to over 3 billion annually. Boeing, the world’s largest airplane manufacturer, estimates a need for 637,000 new pilots by 2036, with 117,000 of them based in North America. Delta Air Lines estimates they’ll need to hire more than 8,000 pilots over the next decade due to the mandated retirement age of 65.
Of the over 580,000 Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certified pilots in the U.S., only 6.7 percent of them are women. Gabby has a lot of support from her family and friends as she enters this male-dominated field. “My mom has been very encouraging and supportive of my dream to be a pilot,” says Gabby. “It’s neat to be able to say I’m a part of this program.”
Gabby’s advice to anyone considering the program would be to go for it and give it a try. She’s hoping she can inspire other women to also become pilots. “Some moments it’s like driving a car. But there’s always something to be looking at, learning and experiencing. It feels so liberating when I’m in the air controlling the aircraft,” says Gabby.
About the SFU Aviation Program
The SFU Aviation Program, provided in coordination with Nulton Aviation Services at the John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, is designed to take a student with no past flight experience and train them such that they can fly, professionally, a single engine, land-based aircraft in a variety of flight conditions.
After just their first year with 40-50 flight hours, students will be able to obtain their Private Pilot License, giving them the legal capacity to fly an aircraft in clear conditions with passengers on their own. The students then go on to earn an add-on instrument rating to allow them to fly in less-than-ideal weather conditions. The final achievement is the Commercial Pilot’s license, requiring a minimum of 100 flight hours as a pilot in command, which includes previously-earned hours. Most students are able to successfully complete the program within three years.
The program began as a result of seed funding from a $1.9 million state multimodal grant awarded to the Johnstown-Cambria County Airport Authority. The funding is part of a workforce development initiative to stem a shortage of pilots nationwide as the Baby Boomer generation retires. The grant provides scholarship money for students who enroll in the program and also will assist the university in marketing it.