Have you ever thought about becoming a pilot? There’s never been a better time—or place—to earn your wings. Vaughn College has an exclusive partnership with Heritage Flight Academy which gives Vaughn aircraft operations students a place to practice flying as they work to achieve their flight certificates and ratings in addition to earning their bachelor’s degree.

We had the privilege of speaking to Neil Visse, executive vice president of Heritage Flight Academy, to discuss how the College’s exclusive long-standing relationship with Heritage has been instrumental in paving the way for hundreds of Vaughn students each year to get their flight certificates and achieve their dreams of becoming pilots.

Why now is the best time to become a pilot

The ongoing pilot shortage is more prevalent than ever before. After the lockdowns due to the pandemic, travelers are taking to the skies sooner than expected, leaving airlines trailing behind the demand. “There’s never been a better time to become a pilot,” said Visse. “The aviation industry went through a dry spell when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Between pilots taking early retirement and those who were furloughed during that time, the industry is seeing a pilot shortage even greater than before.”

Pathway to becoming a pilot

Heritage plane in flightBecoming a pilot is an exciting venture. Students not only learn the academics of flight operations through programs like the aircraft operations degree at Vaughn, but they get to put that knowledge into action—at the controls and in the air—at flight schools such as Heritage Flight Academy. Since 2013, Heritage Flight Academy, located at MacArthur Airport on Long Island, has trained hundreds of Vaughn aircraft operations students as part of its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-approved Part 141 training operation. “We have seen substantial growth over the years,” Visse said. “We have invested not only in our state-of-the-art aircraft but increased our professional staff and operating space. Currently, we have between 100-120 Vaughn students enrolled in our program at any given time.”

The process to make it happen

Students enrolled in the four-year aircraft operations (flight) degree program at Vaughn can begin their training at Heritage in their freshmen year. Visse walked us through the process of how students can begin earning their certificates and ratings:

Freshman year—Achieving a private pilot license

Required flight time: 35 hours, which includes time with flight instructor and solo flight time.

Students will take their first private pilot course (two semesters) at Vaughn simultaneously with the flight-training course at Heritage. This allows students the benefit of demonstrating their academic knowledge as they apply it to their flight lessons. Students can expect to complete their private pilot license certificate by the end of their freshmen year.

Sophomore year—Instrument rating/commercial rating

Required flight time for instrument rating: 35 dual hours with instructor, including flight simulator time.

Instrument rating—During the first semester of sophomore year, students will work toward earning their instrument rating, which permits them to take off, fly and land using the instruments in their aircraft—under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). Students who pass their instrument rating tests will then earn a private pilot’s license with instrument rating.

Required flight time for commercial rating: 120 total hours (65 hours of dual flight time and 55 hours of solo flight time).

Commercial rating—During the second semester of sophomore year, students can work toward earning their commercial pilot rating. This rating requires the most hours and allows them to fly for hire. The flight-training program at Heritage includes ratings for both single and multi-engine aircraft at the commercial level.

Junior year—Certified flight instructor airplane and certified flight instructor instrument ratings

Heritage plane cockpit and controlsRequired flight time: 35 hours.

During their junior year, students will work toward earning the next two licenses with the objective that during their senior year they build up flight time by serving as flight instructors, where they will teach skills to new students interested in earning their flight ratings. According to Visse, the goal is for students to complete all their flight training by the end of their junior year—including their flight instructor airplane and instrument ratings.

With all of these ratings under their belts, students can complete their degrees and be well positioned to enter the workforce. “Students will not have any problem finding a job as a pilot today,” Visse said.

There are certain things to keep in mind when considering whether or not to become a pilot, including the additional cost and time it takes to earn required certificates and ratings. Visse suggests that students speak with a financial aid counselor to discuss their opportunities for financial assistance as well attending a Vaughn open house or information session to talk to student pilots about their experiences. Students can also schedule a virtual meeting with an admissions counselor to discuss their questions and next steps.

The Vaughn/Heritage advantage

There’s no denying that becoming a pilot can be time intensive—not to mention expensive. Visse explains how Heritage shares Vaughn’s passion of seeing students succeed. That’s why this is the only flight school to offer ‘flexible scheduling’ which is a huge advantage for students with busy schedules. Heritage will work around work or class schedules so students can train whenever it’s convenient for them – schedules can change weekly. Additionally, Heritage offers a flat-rate program for Vaughn students when purchasing flight hours, which means after students pay for a certain number of hours, they earn free hours – this makes it much more affordable. “The resilience of our students throughout the pandemic has been amazing,” Visse said proudly. “We are proud to offer unique programs designed to not only help our students succeed but relieve some of their stress at the same time.”

A rewarding partnership

Four Vaughn flight students at HeritageFor the past 15 years, Visse has been an integral part of the aviation industry. While he has enjoyed flying as a pilot, over the years his path has “detoured” to the operational side of the business. “There’s never been a time that I didn’t think about flying,” he said. “My dad was a pilot. I guess you can say it’s in my blood.” Visse said Heritage has seen its fair share of changes over the years. “Thanks to our incredible partnership with Vaughn College, Heritage Flight Academy is now the largest operator at MacArthur Airport,” he said. “Watching our students move on with their careers is bittersweet, but we are proud knowing that we—along with Vaughn—were instrumental in making their dreams of becoming a pilot a reality.”

Growing up around the airline industry and following in her father’s footsteps was all the inspiration Courtney Scott ’21 needed to put her on track to earning a mechanical engineering degree (aeronautical) at Vaughn College—and ultimately landing a job as an engineer at Delta Air Lines.

Growing up with a Vaughn grad

Norman Scott, Southwest airplane mechanic
Courtney’s dad, Norman working as an airplane mechanic for Southwest.

Scott always had a passion for airplanes—and for good reason. Her father, Norman, not only worked in the airline industry as an aircraft mechanic for the past 25 years, but he also graduated from Vaughn College with a bachelor’s degree in aircraft technology (the program is now known as aviation maintenance). Growing up in Wellington, Florida, Scott said she was always fascinated with airplanes and contemplated how to make them better and more efficient. Because of this curiosity, she said her father always encouraged her to become an engineer. “The decision to apply to Vaughn was an easy one,” Scott said. “I grew up hearing my dad say wonderful things about the College and how it paved the way for his career. I knew attending Vaughn would be the right decision for me, too.”

Continuing the Vaughn legacy

In the fall of 2014, Scott moved to New York and enrolled in the associate of applied science aeronautical engineering technology degree program at Vaughn. “I needed a fresh start after high school,” she said. “Vaughn was the perfect place to focus my attention on a rewarding future in a field that I love.” Scott made the most of her time at Vaughn, where she studied hard, played sports and joined the Society of Women Engineers. “Vaughn helped me to be a better person,” she said humbly. “The faculty, staff, coaches and my friends were the greatest support system I could have asked for.” While she was working toward her associate degree, a string of unfortunate events occurred that caused her to withdraw from the program for a few years. “It took me seven years to get through my education,” Scott explained. “My grandmother passed away and I withdrew from the program for a while. In 2017, I started the program again, but had to leave due to financial hardship. I knew God had a plan for me. I was not giving up.” In 2019, Scott was determined to finish her associate degree and begin working toward her bachelor’s degree.

Keeping her sights on the future

While working toward her bachelor’s degree, Scott worked part-time as a ramp agent for Delta Air Lines at John F. Kennedy International Airport. “It was challenging going to school full-time while working, but I loved every minute of it. It was rewarding—not to mention—a great experience.”

Courtney Scott Delta Air Lines
Delta recently recently received an award for highest customer service by J.D. Power. Courtney smiles with the award.

As graduation grew near, she reached out to the career services department at Vaughn who helped her with her résumé and job search. “I attended all the résumé workshops and did everything in my power to position myself to land my dream job,” Scott said proudly. In May of 2021, she graduated from Vaughn and was given a chance to interview with Delta Air Lines that same month. “I received a call from Delta in June offering me the job!” exclaimed Scott. “All my hard work finally paid off!” She moved to Atlanta in late June and started her position as a PW4000 Components and Externals Engineer at Delta Air Lines in early July. “I work on the Pratt & Whitney PW4000 high-thrust aircraft engines, relating to all of the external components that are on the plane’s engine,” Scott explained. “I always wanted a job where I could find solutions to make better airplanes. I want to thank the career services department at Vaughn for being instrumental in helping me land my dream job.”

Message to her peers

Although Scott was successful in finding the job of her dreams, she said the path was not an easy one. “For anyone out there who thinks they can’t find their way, I want to be the first one to tell you: Never give up—you can do it.” At 25 years old, her advice comes from the heart. “My message is simple: Stay focused, learn from everyone, never be afraid to ask questions, and know that you can have anything you want in this life as long as you believe in yourself. Look at me. I have everything I’ve ever hoped for. I have God, my family, and Vaughn to thank for it all.”

From humble beginnings as he learned the English language to working as a SpaceX engineer, Joan Cruz ’20, a Vaughn College mechanical engineering graduate chronicles how his career path found him in a way he least expected.

Coming to America

At the age of seven, Cruz moved to the United States with his mother from the Dominican Republic to join his father and sister who had settled in Maryland. He attended elementary school with the added challenge of learning the English language. Cruz said within six months he broke the language barrier and began making friends. Shortly after, they moved to Queens, New York where Cruz went on to attend Forest Hills High School. “My parents worked hard to give me and my sister a good life in the United States,” Cruz said. “I am grateful to my parents for their efforts to give us the opportunity for a better life.”

Finding his way

Throughout high school, Cruz said he was an average student who did not have a clear vision of what career path he wanted to pursue. “My father encouraged me to become an engineer. He saw something in me that I didn’t—a vision and problem-solving skills that would be best applied in an engineering career. Sadly, I didn’t have the confidence then,” he admitted. “I didn’t think I was engineering material.” Little did Cruz realize that within a few short years he would be working as an engineer for Space Exploration Technologies Corp—which is more popularly known as ‘SpaceX.’

What Cruz did know, however, was that he wanted to live an independent life. At the age of 18, shortly after graduating from Forest Hills High School, he joined the United States Army. “I needed direction and discipline in my life,” he said humbly. “I needed to grow up.” He explained how boot camp was the hardest thing he ever experienced in his life but was well worth it. During his three years of service, Cruz worked as a diesel mechanic in a combat engineering unit. “I loved working as a mechanic,” he said. “I was thrust into this field and discovered talents I didn’t know I had.” Unfortunately, Cruz suffered an injury that cut his military service short. “I was disappointed my time in the army was coming to an end, but I was excited to begin a new chapter in my life. Working as an engineer seemed like it could become a reality. It was then that I discovered Vaughn College.”

Discovering Vaughn

During his last six months of military service, Cruz began researching colleges that had a focus on engineering and aerospace. “As far-fetched as becoming an engineer was for me then, becoming a pilot was even more of a dream—but one I took seriously,” he said. He applied to several colleges and decided on Vaughn to pursue his engineering and aerospace career. In the fall of 2017, Cruz began the mechanical engineering degree program at Vaughn. He explained how the program, although challenging, gave him the skills to land his job as an associate engineer at SpaceX. Cruz pointed out two of his favorite things about Vaughn: The one-on-one relationship students have with their professors and the small class sizes. “The opportunity to ask questions without judgment and faculty support were driving factors in my success,” he said. “I admit I needed some motivation to keep the momentum going. College is a test of your skills, and Vaughn has the perfect formula to cultivate a student’s success.”

During his time at Vaughn, Cruz was a proud member of the Vaughn student chapter of Engineers Without Borders. He, along with three other Vaughn engineering and technology students, were part of the team led by Miguel Bustamante, PhD, assistant professor of engineering and technology. Together, the group visited the African country of Rwanda to test water supplies in the village of Kibingo. (Read more about their incredible efforts here.)

Cruz completed his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in less than four years—but not without earning his pilot’s license, too! “The military ‘can do’ mentality gave me the discipline and determination to work through the summer and both my winter and spring breaks to earn my pilot’s license by my senior year,” he said triumphantly.

‘Launching’ his career

Cruz was determined to land a job before graduating from Vaughn. He sent out several job applications, including one to SpaceX for the position of associate engineer. To his surprise, he received an invitation to interview with SpaceX. Over the course of two months, the excitement and anticipation grew as Cruz completed four interviews in the hope of landing the job at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. In November 2020, Cruz was offered the position of a lifetime, and he moved to Cape Canaveral right after graduating from Vaughn. “I was over the moon to hear the news that I would be working at my dream job,” he said excitedly. Cruz’s responsibilities included working on all hardware for launch pads, tooling and rocket recovery. “I’m convinced that my combined experience and knowledge that I gained at Vaughn, earning my pilot’s license, the Rwanda project with Engineers Without Borders and my veteran work experience were the winning combination to landing my current job.”

Living the dream

After only three months, Cruz was promoted to the position of manufacturing engineer at SpaceX, where his responsibilities include delivering a fully scalable working piece of hardware for a successful SpaceX rocket launch manifest, among other tasks. “The magnitude of responsibility is immense,” he explained. “We all work long hours, but we love every minute of it.” Cruz points out how SpaceX is a positive environment where everyone takes ownership of their work and has an integral part of the process. “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing,” he said emphatically. “If you told me years ago that I would be working as an engineer—building launch hardware components for rocket ships—I would have told you you’re crazy,” laughed Cruz. “I believe everything happens for a reason. Joining the army, and then finding Vaughn were the steppingstones I needed to launch a career I could only dream of.”

Do you have a passion for engineering or aviation? A degree from Vaughn College can be your launching pad for a futureproof career. Apply today!