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Couple’s company offers pilot training in East Idaho

March 19, 2019
Utah Helicopter — a pilot training school that has locations in Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Salt Lake City and Spanish Fork, Utah — has weathered an economic storm in the business that almost forced it to sell and is now looking to the future.
Utah Helicopter — a pilot training school that has locations in Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Salt Lake City and Spanish Fork, Utah — has weathered an economic storm in the business that almost forced it to sell and is now looking to the future.

Many people dream of becoming airplane or helicopter pilots. But Lorri Hansen, co-owner and co-manager of Utah Helicopter with her husband Gary, said that the 2008 economic crash and the history of other flight schools’ dishonesty has made that dream difficult to achieve.

But that is changing and it’s good news for Pocatello area residents who dream of becoming pilots.

Even last year the Hansens had thought about selling their business — which has locations in Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Salt Lake City and Spanish Fork, Utah. But now they feel they’ve weathered the economic storm and see the demand for pilots increasing.

Instead, they have decided to go “all-in” and make their school thrive. They hope to partner with an Idaho college for degree-seekers and also bring Cessna airplane training to the Portneuf area by the end of the year.

“Pocatello has been very generous with us,” Lorri Hansen said. “The location has never been the problem. It’s been getting funding to help students through. But now that we’re beginning to see that turn around, we are glad we hung onto our four locations even though they weren’t that profitable.”

According to Utah Helicopter’s website, the area between the Portneuf River and the Snake River Plain is one of the best environments for learning to fly.

Hansen said, “They get to experience elevation, mountain flying, and the wind. They get exposed to a lot of different flying conditions that others aren’t exposed to. ... That’s an advantage when you’re going for a helicopter job. The Idaho-trained pilots deal with a lot more weather issues than my Utah schools do.”

When the Hansens started Utah Helicopter in 2006 in Spanish Fork, Utah, they were one of 11 independent flight schools between Southern Utah and Northern Idaho. But due to 2008 economic crash and unethical practices of other schools, the other 10 have either sold out or closed their doors.

“If you close your doors, you leave the students you are training and the instructors without a job,” Hansen said. “Our instructors were awesome. They took on extra duties and worked long hours to help us. We weathered the storm and there are brighter things on the horizon.”

Hansen said that she is beginning to see a higher demand for pilots as well as new avenues for students to find funding, which has been very difficult since 2010.

“There are actually a lot of funding opportunities out there right now,” Hansen said. “But I’m being very choosy about which ones we will accept and align a partnership with. We have experienced it all — the highs, the lows, the expanded fleet, and the shrinking fleet. I’m much more cautious now of what funding programs we are willing to get our students into.”

Hansen stated that pilot training takes from 4 to 6 months and is expensive: about $100,000 for a helicopter pilot’s license and about $60,000 for a Cessna airplane license.

Before 2008, obtaining loans for flight school was much easier for students. But it was not only the economic downturn that made funding school harder. Some schools did not deal honestly with their students.

“Schools were taking up-front money from students until the day it closed their doors,” Hansen said, “A lot of students were left owing thousands of dollars.”

Hansen said that from the start, their school has been 100 percent transparent in their charges. She said other schools would take all of the training money up front so that students would have no choice but to continue training with that school no matter what happened.

“We aren’t like that,” Hansen said. “We are pay-as-you-go and if you aren’t happy with your training, you can just go somewhere else at any day and any time.”

Hansen said she also knew of schools taking advantage of veteran GI Bill money. And she even knew of one school whose owner took the students’ money up front and speculated with it on other business ventures.

“After that, lenders reviewed their lending processes for flight training school,” Hansen said. “Between the economy turning and these flight schools taking students’ money and new schools taking advantage of the veterans, it was the perfect storm. There were a lot of people who lost a lot of money so changes needed to happen.”

But Hansen said the changes haven’t always been for the best. The VA began to only fully fund flight schools attached to colleges. Though Utah Helicopter is approved for VA funding, the VA only partially funds independent training schools.

“Many flight schools attached to colleges turned around and start overcharging the government as well,” Hansen said.

She knows of one Idaho program that teaches flight training for $500+/hour, while their program only cost $125 an hour.

Hansen acknowledged that, they, too are in the works of aligning with an Idaho college by this fall. But she said that Utah Helicopter will also keep the option of independent flight training open to students who do not wish to pursue a college degree.

“My goal is to keep a low-cost program,” Hansen said. “My goal is to have our prices low enough that it doesn’t price out my cash-paying students.”

Though the cost of flight school is high, Hansen said its income potential is on the rise as well. She said that most entry level pilots earn around $65,000 to $70,000 and work only 60 percent of the year.

Helicopter pilots are also chartered or hired for more than search and rescue missions. Pilots are hired for everything from private or company transportation to film and photography shoots and tours.

They do ranch patrol of cattle or downed fence lines. They fly hunters or hikers into remote areas. And they are even hired to hover and dry cherries in the last two weeks before harvest.

“The demand for pilots is the highest we’ve seen since 2007,” Hansen said.

Those interested in learning more can contact Lorri at info@utahhelicopter.com or by calling the Pocatello number at (208) 233-4365.

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