Aviation industry taps military vets to fill broadening job openings

Longer service commitments mean companies have fewer candidates in the field.

Sun Air Jets pilot Bruce Martin is seen in front a Citation X jet aircraft. (Photo courtesy of Sun Air Jets)

Sun Air Jets pilot Bruce Martin is seen in front a Citation X jet aircraft. (Photo courtesy of Sun Air Jets)

By KEVIN SMITH | [email protected] | San Gabriel Valley Tribune

PUBLISHED: June 29, 2023 at 9:00 a.m. | UPDATED: July 1, 2023 at 11:16 a.m.

When Carlos Barraza landed a job as a mechanic at Castle & Cooke Aviation, he felt right at home.

Based at Van Nuys airport, the company leases airplane hangars and other facilities to private charter companies in addition to providing airline fuel and 24-hour ramp support.

“I served in the Marine Corps for four years and my entire job there was doing the same thing,” the 25-year-old Lancaster resident said. “The only difference was the equipment itself.”

With aircraft mechanics and pilots retiring faster than they can be replaced, aviation businesses across the U.S. are increasingly turning to military veterans to fill openings.

The Aviation Technician Education Council said 2022 saw a 33% increase in newly certified aircraft mechanics, bringing the total to 6,929. But it wasn’t enough to offset the estimated 5,000 new mechanics who were lost as a result of an industry slowdown during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The council predicts the nation’s aircraft mechanic pipeline will need to increase by at least 20% to meet the projected workforce demand.

Bruce Martin and Marcus Collins, pilots for Sun Air Jets, are seen here in the cockpit of a Citation X. (Photo courtesy of Sun Air Jets)

The industry also continues to struggle with a significant pilot shortage. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be an average of 18,000 openings a year for commercial pilots this decade, driven primarily by pilots who will be retiring.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued 12,771 commercial pilot certificates in 2021 and 13,715 in 2022.

To recognize airport employee veterans for their military service and attract others who are transitioning to civilian careers, Van Nuys Airport on July 4 is launching a virtual Veterans Honor Wall (www.vnyhonorwall.com), sponsored by the nonprofit Van Nuys Airport Association.

Airport Manager Paul Herrera said the hiring of military veterans is “critical for the future success of the entire aviation industry.”

He said there are myriad job opportunities including air traffic controllers, pilots, aircraft mechanics, avionics and line service technicians, cabin service attendants and federal and local safety personnel.

Castle & Cooke employs 40 workers, including five military veterans.

“The thing that gets me excited about hiring military veterans is I know what they’ll bring to the table — a solid work ethic, organization and adherence to rules and regulations,” said Casey Pullman, the company’s general manager.

Pullman, a Navy veteran himself, worked with a C-130 squadron at Naval Base Ventura County-Point Mugu and eventually earned a master’s degree in business administration in aviation.

Sun Air Jets, a private Camarillo-based aircraft management company with extensive operations at Van Nuys Airport, has seen many pilots and aircraft mechanics retire in recent years.

“We hire the pilots, maintain the airplanes and keep them in hangars for our clients,” said Stephen Maloney, the company’s chief operating officer. “And if they want to use a third-party charter company we arrange for that.”

Maloney said the pipeline for hiring military veterans with aviation work experience has narrowed because service commitments have been extended.

“When I went through training and got my wings as a Navy pilot, my obligation was for 4 ½ years,” he said. “Now it’s eight to 10 years. And when you count the flight training, it’s nearly 12 years before you get out of the service.”

By that time, Maloney said many pilots are considering an early retirement, although some opt to work for private aviation companies.

With a workforce of more than 120 employees, Sun Air has hired military veterans to fill a variety of jobs, including, pilots, mechanics, flight dispatchers and others who work in administration.

“It runs the gamut,” Maloney said. “They offer a wide range of expertise and can step into a number of different roles. It’s been a great source for us to find qualified, well-rounded people who are also used to the craziness of aviation.”

John Gil, a former military pilot, came to Sun Air in 2013 after serving a 23-year stint with the U.S. Air Force, including 13 years in the Air National Guard.

“I only fly the owner of a plane that Sun Air manages,” the 56-year-old Los Angeles resident said. “Tomorrow I’ll be on my way to Milan, Italy. It’ll be about a 12-hour flight.”

Gil said his military experience has served him well in the private sector.

“It gives you discipline so you know to show up on time and look professional,” he said. “You also learn to deal with pressure.”

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