Varrin’s Aviation Story – Comair Aviation Academy

Note: This was written in 2003. It has not been updated to reflect current information, and will be left as is. Comair Aviation Academy became Delta Connection Academy after Delta bought Comair Airlines in the late-1990s. It subsequently became Aerosim Flight Academy. Comair Airlines ceased operations in 2012.  (5-27-2014)

This section will probably be the longest since I tend to get the most questions about what Comair Aviation Academy is all about.  Hopefully this covers it all.

When I toured Comair Aviation Academy in April of 1992, the price for the whole program was somewhere around $24,000.  That included double occupancy furnished apartment, but not other living expenses.  What they marketed was a program that would take 8 1/2 months from zero time to all the instructor ratings.  At the end, I would be guaranteed an interview with Comair Aviation Academy to work there as an instructor.  After working there for some period of time, I would be guaranteed an interview at Comair Airlines. As I recall, they said it would be 14 months and I would have to have 1,000 hours total time to get the interview at the airline.

I arrived in Sanford and moved into my apartment.  I began my private pilot ground school with 14 other students (15 total, including me). Most of those 15 students never finished the program.  I know 2 of us did and I think a 3rd may have.  Of the 2 of us that I know finished, we both got hired as instructors and both got hired at the airline. So lesson #1 is finish the program.  Easier said than done, of course. The quality of the training from the private pilot course on up was excellent.
One of the tools they use there that other schools don’t is the Flight Standards Manuals for all of the aircraft they train in.  These manuals are designed with the look and feel of the manuals they use at Comair Airlines.  So from day one, the training is geared towards airline flying which is impressive. In practice, this turned out to be extremely helpful in getting used to reading airline style manuals and knowing how and where to find information.

During my time as a student at Comair, I had several different flight instructors. I generally get along well with people and I found that my flight instructors were easy to get along with, professional, and good teachers.  There was only one who I had any difficulties with and he didn’t last long there as an instructor.  The ground schools were continually improved while I was there.  The ground school instructors while I was a student there were mostly former airline pilots.  They were good at teaching the material and at making sure we all passed the tests.  There were some great teaching aids there in the Learning Resource Center.  They stocked all the advisory circulars, videos and even had, among other things, a working cutaway engine.

Throughout the program I performed well.  I would say I did above average. In fact, I may still hold the record for the fastest instrument rating ever done there: lesson 1 through the FAA checkride in 16 days.  From what I understand they won’t let students do that anymore, but it is possible. Even given my good performance, I went over time and budget.  I started in mid-August and finished in mid-May of the following year, 9 months later. While this was close to the quoted time, I did exceed it a little bit.

I don’t recall how many dollars over budget I went, but it was several thousand, even though I passed every stage check and checkride on the first attempt. The reason for this is that, at the time (and I can only assume they still do this), they were quoting FAA minimums for their 141 programs which are, in my estimation, nearly impossible to meet.  For example, the Private Pilot program is scheduled for 35 hours of flight time.  I finished it in just over 40 hours but that was still 5 hours over, which costs additional money.

The moral of the story is, bring extra money just to complete the program. It is for financial reasons that many students don’t ever finish.  Some students go a few thousand dollars over budget, others go many thousands or tens of thousands over budget.  Keep in mind, you also have to live (i.e. eat) the whole time.

Sometime after finishing my initial CFI, I was invited to interview for a position as a flight instructor.  The interview consisted of some time with the Chief Flight Instructor and a quick interview flight. I was invited to instruct there, but there weren’t any positions available when I was ready.  At that time the school was shrinking from a high of around 350 students to slightly under 100 at it’s low.  It has, of course, grown again since then but while it was shrinking, they were letting
flight instructors go to the airline but not hiring any replacements. This caused an 11 month delay in my starting there as a flight instructor.

As far as ‘success’ rate, it seems to me that the most people are ‘weeded’ out simply by not completing the program.  Then, they don’t hire all of them to become flight instructors (or at least didn’t at the time I was there).  Of the ones who make it to be flight instructors there, nearly all of them wind up going on to fly at Comair or some other airline shortly after finishing up their term as a flight instructor.

Overall, my experience as a student was pretty good.  My experience as a flight instructor, on the other hand, was not very enjoyable.  I did enjoy the actual teaching part of the job, but nearly everything else about it was lousy.  For starters, the pay was horrible.  I understand it’s slightly better now but it was really bad at the time.  In my very best months, I would work 6 days a week (sometimes 7) from early ’til late (sometimes 16 hour days) and earn a whopping $1,000 gross pay.  To call
that “getting paid to fly” is a bit of an overstatement, though technically true.  Most people either relied on the income of a spouse, shared accommodations (sometimes 4 or more to a house or apartment), or had enough savings to bridge the gap.  If you don’t do that, expect to accumulate debt.

I only taught private pilot students for a very short time.  I taught instrument students for far too long (I racked up lots of time instructing in the sim), taught commercial for a short time, taught CFII and MEI students for a while (maybe my most enjoyable time), and then went back and taught a few more commercial students.  When I started there I had a little under 300 hours total time and, because of all the instruction in the sim, took 17 months to accumulate 1,000 hours total time.  That’s an average of less than 50 hours of actual airplane flying per month.  Many people are able to do better than that simply because they don’t spend so much time in the simulator.

The management structure directly above the line flight instructors consists of the assistant chief flight instructors for each section (i.e. private, instrument, commercial, and CFI), the chief flight instructor, and then some people above him (Director of Training, etc.).  The people who I worked for are all gone now.  A few of them were enjoyable to work for but the overall tone was not that pleasant.  The biggest problem is they place upon the flight instructors conflicting goals.  On one hand, they want the students to progress along their ideal schedule.  On the other hand, they want their pass rate for stage checks and checkrides to be 100%. Unfortunately, with the overwhelming majority of students (myself included), it’s impossible to meet both of those goals.  Hence, no matter what you do, the managers pick on you for not doing good enough.  I had periods where my pass rate was good and they complained that I was taking too long with my students.  I had periods that my students were on schedule and they complained that my pass rate was not good enough.

Near the end of the program, I was anxious to move on to the airline. They insisted that I needed to meet the minimums of 1,000 hours total time and 100 hours of multi time.  I had the multi time but not the total time.  Both before and after I left, there were some people who went without meeting those minimums, however they consistently denied that ever happened.  In the end, I simply had to wait until they were ready to let me go.  Ultimately my turn came and I interviewed at the airline.
Prior to the interview, we received pretty decent gouge on what was going to happen.  At the time, they were doing the technical evaluations there at the academy.  On a few occasions, I was in the simulator next to an eval in progress.  I was able to observe a bit about what happened along the way which was very helpful.  One of the things I observed, which is probably still the case, is that the people who were Comair Aviation Academy instructors and students were generally far better prepared than those from the outside, even though the ones from the outside typically had significantly more experience.  The location of the technical evaluation has changed several times since I went through it and I don’t know where they hold them now.

When all was said and done, I was offered a job flying the EMB-120 for Comair Airlines.  I had to wait again because there was no hiring for several months. Additionally, they had a pay-for-training program at the time. This was started after I started as a student at Comair Aviation Academy and was an unexpected expense.  In order to get around the union contract issue, they simply did all the training prior to officially hiring us. That added another nearly $10,000 to the price tag of the whole program. They have stopped doing that, but I wouldn’t put it past them to do it again.

Intro – Document history, purpose, and introduction
History – How I got started – the story before the story
Comair Aviation Academy – Details about my time as a student and instructor at Comair Aviation Academy, now Delta Connection Academy
Comair Airlines – Information about flying for Comair Airlines
World Airways – Information about flying for World Airways (Updated May 27th, 2014)
Nippon Cargo Airlines – Information about flying for Nippon Cargo Airlines
Conclusion – A wrap up of the whole story

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