(The Leading Edge fleet of aircraft | Photo courtesy of Leading Edge Flight Academy)

For those wishing to become a pilot as a profession or who simply want to fly for fun, Leading Edge Flight Academy has offered airplane and helicopter training in Central Oregon for more than 16 years. And, new this fall, Leading Edge has just partnered with Meritize lending to provide additional financial options for would-be pilots who need help funding such an education.

“Students enrolled in Leading Edge Flight Academy who need tuition or financial assistance will now have access to an innovative new financing option to pay for their courses, thanks to our partnership with the Meritize platform,” says Courtney Massey, director of Business Development for Leading Edge. Unlike traditional lenders that rely solely on FICO scores and other financial records to determine whether to lend to an individual, she says the Meritize platform considers the full depth of an individual’s academic or military achievements to enhance credit evaluation and potentially improve loan options. “Merit-based financing may provide a significant source of financial and credit assistance for students who are self-financing their pilot certificates,” says Massey, adding that this new finance option comes at a good time. “The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 13 percent industry growth for the aviation industry by 2030, further highlighting the extreme need for pilots.”

Jesse Pfister, who began his training with Leading Edge this fall, is working on his Private Pilot’s License with the goal of launching a career as a helicopter pilot. “My experience with Leading Edge Aviation has been enriching, stimulating and humbling,” he says. “The program offers a high degree of professionalism in its staff and provides a cohesive training environment for its students. Even though I have only been at Leading Edge for a couple of months, I can confidently say that the program is dedicated to providing the best training to its students.” He adds, “The instructors offer quality education, mentorship and they operate with the safety of their students in mind.”

Pfister says flying a helicopter has been one of the more humbling things he has done in his life due to the physical and mental demands of piloting an aircraft and the situational awareness and coordination it requires. “One of the more challenging moments at the beginning of my flight training was learning how to hover. However, the ability to hover soon became one of my biggest triumphs.” Now, he says, he is working hard in his flight training to perfect emergency maneuvers and prove his ability to fly solo.

Pfister chose to start an aviation career, he says, because of the passion he developed for helicopters while working for the Forest Service. “I was with the USFS for ten seasons, and six of those seasons were on a rappel crew working directly with helicopters. Being on, around and rappelling from helicopters lit the fire inside to become a pilot myself.” After he receives his Certified Flight Instructor certification, Pfister says he would like to start instructing for Leading Edge. “From there, some desired positions would include flying tours, emergency services and eventually flying for the Forest Service. One day, I would love to be in a place where I can fly for the crews where my passion for flying began.”

Though the aviation industry took a brief hit in 2020, it was short-lived, and Pfister is one of 29 new helicopter students and 47 new airplane students who began their training at Leading Edge this fall. “We have been grateful that the pandemic did not hit our school very hard,” says Massey. “While the industry had a brief slowdown in 2020, we are back to seeing the well-broadcasted pilot shortage impact all aspects of the field. Our current instructors are moving on to the next steps in their careers, while we have the privilege of hiring on our graduates as the next generation of instructors.” She adds, “We are so excited to see continued interest in training, and we are honored to prepare individuals for their professional careers in the industry.”

Leading Edge is the flight provider for Central Oregon Community College (COCC), which offers a two-year degree in aviation. “We serve many veterans who have exited their service and are looking for their next career. It is an honor to train these individuals and watch them succeed in the next step toward their future,” says Massey. The students who excel in the program are invited to become flight Instructors at Leading Edge, which allows them to fly an average of 70 hours per month and helps them accrue the flight hours needed for their next aviation job goal.

Training at Leading Edge takes place in the academy’s fleet of aircraft, which are standardized and allow for student familiarization across the fleet. As part of its program, Leading Edge provides fully integrated operations including maintenance, line service, a PSI testing center, Frasca C172 and R44 Simulators as well as real-world aviation operations with Part 135 helicopter aerial firefighting, utility work, charters and tours. An accelerated nine-month program is available to individuals who qualify. Because Central Oregon has about 300 days of sunshine per year and has four true weather seasons, students who learn how to fly here can gain valuable practice in how to make informed go/no-go decisions. Leading Edge also offers the following programs:

  • SkyWest Pilot Pathway Program, which provides a direct path for exceptional pilots to join SkyWest with enhanced seniority, priority interviews, access to pilot mentors and more.
  • Resume assistance, which helps graduates showcase their education and skills to potential employers.
  • Horizon Program, in which a partnership between COCC and Horizon Air offers eligible students $7,500 toward flight training. With the goal of encouraging students to invest in their community, students become eligible for the grant when they agree to stay and teach as certified flight instructors for a COCC-approved FAA Part 141 school such as Leading Edge.
  • Alaska Seaplanes is a pilot pathway program for Leading Edge’s most motivated students. After a vetting process during training, students are fast-tracked in their career path, launching them toward an opportunity with Alaska Seaplanes.

Moving forward, Massey says the goal at Leading Edge is to continue to offer opportunities and partnerships that will advance the careers and training outcomes of students, whether through securing career-flow partners, bringing in industry recruiters to talk about the hiring process, holding resume workshops or conducting other advancement programs. “Leading Edge’s start-to-finish support and above-industry standard training prepares students to meet their aviation goals. With a management team of pilots having over 37,000 cumulative hours and 100-plus years in the industry, Leading Edge knows what it takes to prepare students for a career in aviation.”

Leading Edge Flight Academy is located at 63048 Powell Butte Highway in Bend. For more information, please call 541-383-8825. For those interested in the Meritize financing option, please email to launch@flybend.com.