In September, two dozen pilots hired by Porter Airlines to fly its expanding fleet of jet aircraft filed into a classroom in Hangar 5 at Billy Bishop Toronto Island Airport—the downtown hub that has become synonymous with the 17-year-old carrier—to start their training. At a time when nearly every industry complains about the struggle to find workers, airlines face one of the most acute shortages of all, with the global shortfall of aviators predicted to widen to 35,000 in two years. Which makes what’s happening at Porter, and what it takes to put just one of these pilots behind the stick, so astonishing.
You’ll forgive us if we skip some steps. Like finding someone with the confidence, intellect, spatial awareness and calm under pressure—the right stuff, if you will—to shoulder responsibility for a $100-million flying machine and the lives of so many souls; a person who may have easily had to shell out $100,000 or more to get fully licensed; and one who has already paid their dues flying cramped air taxis and remote commuter runs on bumpy turboprops to log the bare-minimum 1,500 hours of flight time needed to qualify for a first officer position (4,500 hours for a captain).
That’s the baseline, just to get in the door for an interview.
From there, pilots plunge into a month of in-class and virtual ground-school training, absorbing doorstopper manuals on every facet of how to operate and deal with emergencies aboard the Embraer E195-E2, Porter’s jet of choice. In a flight simulator—an exact replica of the aircraft’s cockpit that’s jacked up on hydraulic legs with wrap-around video screens—recruits are put through weeks of ever more intense drills, emergency scenarios and extreme weather conditions, like a combination of strong winds, thunderstorms and blinding fog. (Or, as Samuel Carter, Porter’s assistant chief pilot, puts it, “landing in St. John’s.”) And after…