Vincent Smith

Capt. Vincent Smith stands next to a Cessna Caravan he flies for Southern Airways Express.

Most flight cancellations at Johnstown can be traced to one issue: There aren’t enough pilots and first officers.

While airline officials say it is a challenge to get new pilots to relocate to Johnstown, one veteran pilot says this region and Southern Airways Express flights provide an ideal opportunity.

“It’s a fantastic job for someone who’s serious and wants to move up,” Capt. Vincent Smith said.

Ideally, there should be six to eight pilots living in the area and working out of John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, airline Executive Vice President Mark Cestari said.

But a nationwide pilot shortage is compounded by lower pay at commuter airlines and perceptions about Pennsylvania weather – creating recruiting challenges, Cestari said.

Many new pilots are coming from the military and are used to warmer weather at bases in the South.

“It is hard to get people to move from places like that to places like Pennsylvania,” Cestari said. “It’s why companies move.”

But Pennsylvania weather should be an attraction for up-and-coming pilots, Smith said.

Newer pilots are placed in the right seat of Southern’s nine-passenger turboprop Cessna Caravan aircraft, Smith said. As first officer, or co-pilot, they share control of aircraft with the pilot.

Working with the more experienced pilots can help the first officers learn how to fly in the region’s ever-changing weather conditions, Smith said.

Southern’s first officers and pilots also learn what it means to work for a commercial airline, Smith said, explaining that the uniforms, personal appearance and rules of conduct are similar to those required by major carriers.

“For a first officer, this is a job with tremendous opportunities,” Smith said. “It’s the best dress rehearsal for what you are going to do.”

Pilots and first officers also get to hear how they are doing from Southern passengers.

“It is a very intimate airplane,” Smith said. “We don’t have flight attendants, so the pilots interact with the passengers, helping them on and off the plane.”

The other primary opportunity for new pilots is working as flight instructors building up experience for a job at a larger airline, Smith said.

But working for Southern will provide more hours and better experience, he said.

“The pay isn’t great,” Smith admits. “It’s about what you’re taking in as a flight instructor.

“But you are working for an airline. It looks a hell of a lot better on your resume.”

Randy Griffith is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5057. Follow him on Twitter @PhotoGriffer57.

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