It used to be that if you were a demo pilot for Cessna’s single, piston-engine airplanes assigned to its Independence, Kansas plant, there wasn’t an easy way to transition to the company’s turboprops and jets. Instead, the Wichita-based company was hiring pilots from the outside, who already had lots of experience flying turbine aircraft, many with 1,500 hours or more.
“There wasn’t a defined pathway like we have today, intended on bringing in those lower-time pilots, developing the skills to move them into turbines,” Textron Aviation manager of flight operations pilot development and piston training Timothy Gerlach told AIN.
Three years ago, that changed, after the airframer had completely brought into the fold its former cross-town competitor Hawker Beechcraft—acquired by Textron Inc. in 2014—and realized that it, too, was facing increased competition for experienced pilots capable of commanding twinjets.
Hence, the Pilot Development Program (PDP) was born as a way to provide all of Textron Aviation’s pilots a career track and to also counter the effects of a pilot shortage. “There’s potential for them beyond the cockpit, and we’ve had pilots come through who have gone on to become very successful as production or flight-test pilots,” Gerlach explained.
When Brian Roggenbaum joined Cessna’s flight operations in Independence in 2004, there wasn’t an easy way to cross over to turbine aircraft in Wichita. But a few years later he got the rare chance to make that leap to “join the turbine demo team, but with no particular path or plan,” Roggenbaum, now Textron Aviation flight operations customer experience manager, told AIN. “It was just 'come over here and experience turbine flying and at some point you’ll be ready to do this yourself.'”
At any given time, about 20 pilots are in the program at different phases—from pistons to turboprops to turbofans—of training. Each phase that’s completed means the pilot is qualified as a demo pilot and pilot-in-command (PIC).
Some candidates for the PDP come from within the company though most are recruited from outside Textron Aviation. Hiring qualifications include a four-year degree, commercial license and multi-engine and instructor ratings. “There is a time requirement, approximately 500 hours total flight time and approximately 200 hours of instruction given,” said Gerlach, adding that the instructor rating is especially important for their role as demo pilots. “So we’re looking for an early career aviator with some reasonable amount of instruction experience.”
Recently, two pilots in at different phases in the PDP program, Chelsea Carlin and Michaela Parisi, participated in the 2019 Air Race Classic.
Parisi, who graduated from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace administration and operations, joined Textron Aviation as an intern in May 2018 and was hired as a full-time employee in August. She is in the first phase of the PDP, which is piston qualification. “Eventually, I hope to become qualified to fly our turbine airplanes and be able to fly as a customer demonstration pilot,” Parisi told AIN. “I also would love to get some flight time in the Cessna Caravan as well and do some international traveling.”
Parisi’s teammate, Carlin, has been with the company for more than 3.5 years and holds a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical technology from Kansas State University-Salina. She is in the final phase of the PDP and recently received her second-in-command authorization in the Citation 525 series aircraft.
If she weren’t in the PDP Carlin would probably be an airline pilot. “That was always the goal in the back of my mind, although I never felt deep down that airline life would be the right fit for me,” she told AIN.