NAIA Days: My Flight School Experience
With my private license in my pocket I set out to obtain my ratings at the tender age of 20. The plan was to leave my hometown and go to a big school to get all the ratings I would need to start flying for a living – this is that journey.
After a false-start at a big flight school in Oklahoma, I transferred to a new school in NM so I could accelerate my training. The previous school proved frustrating as it was overran with students and didn’t have enough airplanes or instructors. North American Institute of Aviation (NAIA) was just the opposite. Plenty of instructors and airplanes and 360 VFR days a year.
NAIA was based in Conway, SC and while that campus was successful, they made the move to open a satellite facility to cater to foreign students who needed to complete their ratings fast and build as much time as possible while their visas were still valid. Thus the Las Cruces campus was born.
Las Cruces could produce a single and multiengine commercial pilot with CFII in 6 months! This was under their 141 program.
The key was the excellent weather, plenty of infrastructure, and total immersion on the part of the student. None of the students had jobs and we all lived together in an apartment complex owned by the school – flying was our whole existence.
We would fly early when it was smooth, go to class during the heat of the day, and then fly again late afternoon. It was awesome!
I already had my private license and 260 hours so I went through on the Part 61 track to save money and time. Since I wasn’t starting from scratch they assigned me to a class that was already in progress in May of 1991.
I was the only American in my group, the rest were Scandinavians, Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and others from various parts of Europe. It was a bit of a culture shock for the 20 year old from rural Oklahoma!
We flew the Cessna 152, Cessna 172, Cessna 172RG, and turbo Seminoles – the equipment was first class! The elevation was 4500′ at LRU, but density altitude could get to almost 10,000′ on a hot day, so the turbo-charged Seminoles allowed us to do single-engine work with an adequate margin of safety. It was great for us because you normally don’t get to fly a turbo-charged airplane in flight school.
Even though my classmates where from overseas, they spoke great English. They were hard-working and everyone was happy to be there. Generally they were 5 or 6 years older than me and already had undergraduate degrees or spent time in the military.
Most of the instructors were previous top graduates from the school and in fact that was our goal; graduate and stay to build time teaching new recruits. Unfortunately, new students were becoming scarce and things started to unravel shortly after I graduated.
I can’t image a more intense educational experience, having taken 5 written tests and 4 checkrides over that 3 month period – it was like flying boot camp. This was an amazing experience that I’ll cherish and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again!
All-in-all, it was a top-notch operation, but unfortunately it fell victim to the lack of pilot jobs that plagued both the US and Europe in the early 1990s. The satellite campus closed in 1992, a year after I left. NAIA stayed in business on the East Coast until unsanctimoniously closing it’s doors in 2008; it’s almost 40 years of service finally succumbing to the worst economic collapse since the great depression.
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