SEA-TAC AIRPORT - For five years now Alaska Airlines has held a community event in its hangar to help kids consider aviation careers. It began with the Boy Scouts, but has grown to include young people from Aviation High School to the Civil Air Patrol. They call it, "the spark."
"To light a spark, so that they can see how to get to a career that might interest them," said Capt. Tom Rogers, an Alaska Airlines pilot who sees the excitement in young people when exposed to all things airplane.
Rogers says he father got him started by encouraging him to get a job fueling and washing small planes at a small airport in high school. He went on to become an F-15 fighter pilot first in the Air Force and then in the Air National Guard as well as flying Alaska 737s. He's been flying since he was 17.
"We created this program because we're aviation oriented, we all have that enthusiastic feeling for aviation, and wanted to bring the community in to something we do every day," said Rogers.
Rogers, who is also a former Boy Scout leader and dad to three grown sons, got the program rolling and still coordinates an army of some 200 airline volunteers including mechanics, flight attendants, dispatchers and company executives. Alaska considers the program unique among airlines and is now expanding it to its Portland, Oregon base.
The hangar today is populated mostly with small Cessna's and other private airplanes, one of which is owned and flown by Alaska President and CEO Brad Tilden. Outside, are two Alaska 737s, a Boeing owned T-38 chase plane, engines, and even K-9 units, police officers along with firefighters from the Port of Seattle. All aviation careers.
Everybody talks about the "spark."
"I think most of us remember when we were with somebody and there was sort of that spark was ignited that interest in aviation and that's what we're really hoping to do," said Tilden. "Maybe somebody here wants to be a pilot, maybe they want to become a mechanic or an engineer, but kids get a chance to come out, they learn about aviation careers, they learn about airplanes they have a little fun on a day like today, and who knows, maybe a few of these kids end up with careers in aviation.
Kids can meet people in all aspects of flying, learn about airport security and even try their hands flying in a simulator.
But airlines are also thinking about the future. One growing concern is over a looming pilot shortage as more U.S. military pilots stay in the military for 20 and 30 years careers, as the cost of learning how to fly as a civilian continues to prove too expensive for many and as the world's airlines are expected to grow dramatically over the next 20 years needing pilots, and other aviation professionals.
"There are still a lot of pilots out there right now," said Capt. Rogers. "But that's not going to last forever."