John Sibole got his pilot’s license when he 17, earned a mechanical engineering degree from Lehigh University and spent four years as a U.S. Air Force pilot.
But even with that experience, Sibole said actually getting a job as a commercial airline pilot was tough.
“It was very difficult. I really had to wage a campaign to get hired,” he said.
But a lot has changed for airline pilots since Sibole began flying for US Airways in 1980, including the ubiquity of airline travel, increased demand for air cargo and fewer military-trained pilots entering the industry.
Today, pilots are very much in demand and the industry is grappling with a shortage, which benefits anyone entering aviation.
“Historically — and I’m not exaggerating — it’s probably the best time in history that it’s ever been because there is a real pilot shortage, he said. “It’s actually pretty severe.”
Meeting some of that demand for pilots is part of the reason Eastern Mennonite University's Lancaster campus began an aviation program last year, an effort Sibole helped guide as an adviser.
But as the second EMU class of nine would-be aviators moves through its first academic year, Sibole is taking a more hands-on role.
“One thing led to another and the offer was made for me to be the director of the program,” said Sibole, who started in that role in September.
Learning to fly
EMU Lancaster’s program is done in collaboration with Aero-Tech Services, which offers flight training at the Lancaster Airport. Students who complete the 60-credit concentration earn private and commercial pilot licenses with an instrument rating plus a flight-instructor certificate, and get an internship.
The first incoming class in August 2018 had five students, and Sibole said he expects “quite a few more” in the third class as the program builds momentum.
While a college degree is not required to be a pilot, Sibole says it is often preferred for many aviation jobs, while also giving students more than just flying ability.
“We’re not just producing people who just have the technical skills to fly, we’re really helping people in their path toward leadership down the road,” he said.
In addition to become commercial pilots, Sibole says graduates could work as charter pilots, helicopter pilots or instructors as well as in aviation management.
To help students understand their career prospects, Sibole teaches a freshman course on “Becoming Aviators” in which he pairs students with someone working in the industry.
“We want them to have a realistic view of it,” he said.
And since tuition and flying fees during the four-year program amount to nearly $120,000, Sibole also wants to make students understand the financial commitment.
Yet Sibole argues the economy’s fundamental reliance on air cargo coupled with the average person’s propensity to travel through the air means the aviation industry is about as recession-proof as possible.
“For the first time in decades, at the other end of that, there’s a really promising income — and that has not been the case for quite a while,” he says. “A person going into it today has a very reasonable prospect of being able to pay back student loans.”
Having the right stuff
In addition to being a commercial airline pilot for 30 years, Sibole has operated his own flight school and been a safety inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Having worked with, trained or overseen thousands of pilots, Sibole says he’s come to appreciate what makes a good one, which begins with understanding some of the possible drawbacks of what is not a 9-to-5 job.
Apart from accepting the inevitable evenings and weekends, Sibole says there isn’t an ideal temperament for a pilot even as good ones must develop a methodical and disciplined approach.
“As you can imagine, aviation is very intolerant of carelessness or sloth,” he says. “(Students) have to at least have the capacity to develop discipline and professionalism.”
Sibole says his own military experience helped him cultivate a disciplined approach to the job, although he thinks civilian training can be just as good.
“There’s folks from all the different backgrounds that are just as disciplined, just as professional,” he says. “If they’ve gone through a structured school like they’re doing here, they should be OK.”
For the 69-year-old Mount Gretna resident, being a pilot with his own plane is a big benefit when he has to make a trip to EMU’s main campus in Harrisonburg, Virginia, a solid four-hour drive from Lancaster.
Instead of hitting the road, Sibole takes to the skies and can be there in less than 90 minutes.
“At this stage, the part of it I enjoy the most is actually the flying, going up and looking down at all that traffic I’m not in,” he says.