Sitting in the passenger seat of a 1973 Piper Cherokee, Brandon Moore says he was 16 years old when he realized he wanted to be a pilot.
Flying connects Brandon and his dad, Janesville Police Chief Dave Moore, who was the pilot Wednesday as we glided in the clear, blue sky above Lake Koshkonong.
Dave Moore had taken his family to the restaurant at the Southern Wisconsin Regional Airport for years to watch planes. In 2008, he and Brandon enrolled in flight training classes.
The two now are flying aficionados. Dave owns the four-seater, single-engine Cherokee, and Brandon, 27, flies for PSA Airlines, a regional commercial airline owned by American Airlines.
Brandon, a 2010 Craig High School graduate, returned to the airport this week to recruit pilots at the national Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference, or SAFECON. Competitive flight events are scheduled at the airport through Friday.
The competition is sponsored by the National Intercollegiate Flying Association and is hosted by UW-Madison. It’s the first year Wisconsin has hosted the event.
Twenty-nine teams are competing, including UW-Madison and Brandon’s alma mater, Louisiana Tech University. About 100 small-engine planes from across the country are parked on the airport’s tarmac.
Wednesday, pilots participated in the power-off landing event. One by one, they idled their engines and glided onto the runway, landing in a 200-foot box.
The landings were graded on a point system that evaluated where the planes touched down, their landing technique and the bounce of the aircraft. Pilots were disqualified if they landed before the starting line, Brandon said.
“You’d rather land a little bit long than coming up too short,” he said.
In a navigation event Tuesday, pilots planned a 100-nautical-mile flight and estimated their fuel burn and navigation time for the trip. Brandon said they were judged on how accurate their estimates were.
Pilots took aircraft recognition and computer accuracy tests Monday in Madison. In a message-drop event slated for Friday, each plane’s passenger will release a lightweight container from the plane and try to hit a mark on the ground.
Recruiters on prowl
Brandon said demand for commercial airline pilots has skyrocketed over the past five years.
Along with PSA Airlines, recruiters from Delta and UPS are scouting pilots at the competition. Brandon said all regional airlines are hiring.
“You can land a job at SAFECON,” he said. “... It should be their interview to lose. That’s kind of how we look at it.”
In 2010, some flight schools shut down, Brandon said. Salaries for pilots were low, and their mandatory retirement age had been raised from 60 to 65. The industry stagnated.
Since then, wages have increased dramatically, and some colleges now are turning away students from their programs.
Brandon was 16 when he flew an airplane by himself for the first time.
“Your heart’s pumping so fast the first time you get to go solo,” he said. “You look over to the right seat, and your flight instructor’s not there.”
Brandon enrolled in Louisiana Tech’s aviation program 10 days before he graduated from Craig. He flew commercially from Ruston, Louisiana, to walk the stage in Janesville, he said.
In college, Brandon competed in regional SAFECON events in Mississippi and Texas. Louisiana Tech never advanced to the national competition while he was a student.
A host of certificates are required to become an airline pilot, including an private pilot certificate, an instrument rating—which allows pilots to fly through clouds—a commercial pilot certificate, a multi-engine rating and an airline transport pilot certificate.
As an aviation major, Brandon took weather and aerodynamics classes alongside core college classes. He worked as a flight instructor at Tubreaux Aviation in Shreveport, Louisiana, and flew a plane for a skydiving business.
He was hired by PSA in March 2015 and is based in Knoxville, Tennessee. The airline is wholly owned by American Airlines and operates American Eagle planes, Brandon said.
Now a captain at PSA, he anticipates becoming an American Airlines pilot in the next three years.
Brandon praised Janesville for hosting the college event Wednesday. He said he is recruiting pilots in the former Blackhawk Technical College maintenance terminal, the same building where he took flight lessons with his dad in 2008.
“I never thought, ever, I would be recruiting for my airline in my hometown,” he said.
Christine Rebout, executive director of the Janesville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the flight competition is expected to generate $650,000 in economic impact for local businesses.