It takes time and money, but there are enough people in the Rio Grande Valley in pursuit of a pilot license to keep two full-time flight instructors busy at McCreery Aviation Flight Academy at McAllen Miller International Airport. “It’s a process,” said chief flight instructor Mike Garza. “You’ve got to study, you’ve got to learn and you’ve got to have the time.”
McCreery Aviation is a full-service general aviation center founded in 1946 at a small airport in Mercedes, then moved to McAllen in 1948. Owner Bob McCreery said his father, who was stationed as a flight instructor at the Harlingen Air Base during World War II, started the business.
“The services turned out a lot of pilots and after the war they wanted to continue to fly,” McCreery said. “That was a critical turning point in the general aviation industry.” The flight school is only one aspect of McCreery’s business. The company offers full services that include catering to private aircraft arriving and departing the airport, airplane maintenance and sales, charter flights and an air ambulance service.
“We probably get 50 to 60 people a year enrolled in our flight school,” he said. “About a third will complete the program in a year or less. Others may stop for a while and then pick up again the next year. Some people do it because they want to be a commercial pilot. Some do it for business reasons and some do it just for the heck of it.”
Flight school programs are designed to be flexible to accommodate students’ time constraints and finances. “You could do it in a month or you might do it in two years. Somebody with the time and money could finish the program in four to six weeks,” McCreery said.<
Instructor Garza knew he wanted to fly from the moment his father, an air traffic controller, took him to an air show where he watched the Air Force Thunderbirds perform. “From that time on I knew what I wanted to do.” He went on to get his private pilot license in 1980, later earning a commercial license. He flew for Continental Express for seven years and has been a certified flight instructor since 1996.
McCreery Flight Academy uses the Cessna Pilot Center online ground school curriculum where students learn about avionics, weather, aircraft performance, weight and balance and other topics. Instructors monitor the ground training progress as students simultaneously go through actual flight instruction. “There’s a big spectrum of information that you’ve got to learn,” Garza said.
A typical instructional flight is one and a half hours that includes pre- and post-flight checks and an hour of actual flight time. Students get to take the controls on the first flight. “The very first thing is to get you to fly the airplane yourself,” Garza said. “Flight training is progressive, starting with straight and level flight and basic turns, then moving to climbs, steep turns and stalls. Once we complete that a student can start working on take-offs and landings.”
Once students complete the ground school and in-flight instruction, they must pass a written exam and a flight check ride, a rigorous process in the presence of a Federal Aviation Administration examiner. “We have had physicians who have a hard time passing that written test,” Garza said.
After obtaining a private pilot license, advanced ratings are available for instrument flying, piloting different aircraft and commercial licenses. “Depending on what you want to do, the key is perseverance,” Garza said. “You have got to stick with it.”
The cost of learning to fly depends on variables such as flight lesson frequency, the kind of aircraft and individual aptitude. The McCreery Aviation website states a rough estimate would range between $6,000 and $10,000 for a private pilot license.