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While many of our ancestors arrived in this nation by ship – the only practical means of mass transit at the time, the subject of this blog chose a different but no less dangerous path to freedom. In his case, timing made the difference between life and death.
Kenneth H. Rowe (No Kum-Sok) was born in Sinhung, Korea on January 10, 1932. When Rowe was twelve years old, Korea was a part of the Japanese Empire and both Japanese culture and companies dominated the peninsula. Though Korean traditions and culture were officially shunned, Rowe’s father worked for a Japanese corporation and made a relatively good living, providing Ken with both material and social advantages. By his teen years, Ken could speak both Korean and Japanese fluently. In 1944 the Japanese military began sending its pilots on suicide missions against the American navy in the Pacific and requested Korean volunteers. Although Rowe was only twelve, he asked his father if he could volunteer to serve as a kamikaze pilot. The father was able to discourage Rowe, and conveyed an attitude that the United States would ultimately win the war. This aroused a curiosity in Ken about the United States and its people.
While Rowe began to express pro-American sentiments to his classmates, he had to be careful about them since the Soviets occupied Korea north of the 38th parallel after World War II and installed a Communist regime. After several years of dictatorship under Kim ll Sung, Ken became convinced he had to leave North Korea but ironically decided being an ardent Communist would give him the means to do so. Rowe’s zeal caught the attention of the North Korean military and he soon trained to become a fighter pilot.
Ken began flying combat missions in Soviet-built Mig-15 jet fighters in 1951. Although he flew nearly a hundred missions during the course of the war, he sought to avoid dogfights with USAF jet fighters, which enjoyed both qualitative and quantitative advantages. In September 1953, two months after the end of the Korean War Rowe (No) saw his chance. Rowe’s squadron was on a training mission from Sunan Air Base, just outside of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. With near perfect flying weather, Rowe was able to veer away from from his unit and set a course for the 38th parallel into South Korea. He knew the odds were against him to land safely at an American air base, but after a fifteen minute flight Rowe landed safely at Kimpo Air Base, just outside the South Korean capital of Soul. He later discovered the USAF radar was shutdown for maintenance work that morning, though he barely missed a collision with an American jet fighter landing on the same runway from the opposite direction.
Rowe (No) spent the next six months on Okinawa as a consultant to both the USAF and CIA on the capabilities of the Mig-15, as well as providing insight about North Korean air combat strategies. Ken arrived in the United States in 1954, working as a paid contractor to a number of US intelligence agencies. During that time, he often traveled by rail between Washington DC and New York, passing through Newark, Delaware – home of the University of Delaware School of Engineering. Intent on pursuing his education, Rowe enrolled in the UD engineering program, earning degrees in both mechanical and electrical engineering. He was well situated upon graduation, with the $100,000 reward received for defecting with the Mig (of which Rowe was unaware) invested for him and yielding a high rate of return.
When Rowe sought assistance from his CIA handlers in securing a green card to work in the US, they refused. He could only get temporary visas as a result of an agreement between the CIA and the government of South Korea, who wanted him to join their air force upon graduation. From a close relationship with a history professor at UD, Ken was introduced to a Senator from Delaware, who introduced a bill granting him citizenship. The bill was eventually signed by President Eisenhower. The CIA was instructed not to interfere if Rowe sought permanent immigration status on his own.
In 1957 Ken was reunited with his mother, who had been living in South Korea. Though he wasn’t fluent in English, he quickly adapted to life in the United States. Rowe pursued a varied and successful career in aeronautical engineering, working for a number of key aviation firms such as Grumman, General Dynamics, Lockheed and Boeing, as well as General Electric, DuPont and Westinghouse. After leaving the corporate world, Rowe served as an aeronautical engineering professor at Embry-Riddle University, making him a true hero of aviation – both inside and outside of the cockpit.
This blog is the fifth of a series about the heroes of aviation.
When one makes the decision to become a pilot, they first realize how many hours and how many dollars are involved in order to complete the training – a regimen not everyone can sustain. During this blog, we will explore current employment trends for commercial pilots, as well as the underlying causes for pilot shortages.
When the Airline Deregulation Act passed in 1978, the government no longer controlled airline industry scheduling, staffing or fares. With the market saturated with new airlines, the industry now controlled who they hired and how much they paid them. The airline segment entered a period of intensified competition between existing airlines with new ones entering the market. While these conditions created an increased demand for commercial pilots, flight schools were able to keep pace with the demand due to the expansion of the national economy. This growth began to slow in the 1990s, with a number of airlines such as Precision, Atlantic, TWA and North American either being absorbed into another airline or leaving the industry, creating a surplus of available pilots.
On the heels of the airline consolidation of the 1990s came another event which brought a drastic impact upon the industry – the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. These attacks brought about enhanced security measures and related costs to be borne by the airlines, in addition to creating a climate of fear, which devastated the industry as a whole.
Financial considerations are another factor affecting the supply of pilots. The major airlines (those serving international routes) currently require a pilot to have a Bachelor’s degree along with completion of their Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate. The tuition required to complete both courses of study is easily in excess of $100,000, leaving entry level pilots saddled with debt for a number of years. To make matters worse, competition is keen for the relatively few openings at the major airlines, forcing many graduates to begin their careers working for the smaller regional airlines, subcontractors who operate smaller jets and turboprops on behalf of the major carriers. These airlines offer starting salaries in the $20,000 to $25,000 range, low by industry standards, with advancement to captain often taking at least five years. Pilot tuition further increased in 2013, to satisfy a new FAA requirement of 1,500 hrs. training for safety purposes. The previous requirement was 350 hrs. Starting salaries at the major carriers average between $35,000 to $40,000 per year. By comparison, a 2LT in the USAF, with flight pay and allowances, earns approximately $50,000 per year.
So, is there a current pilot shortage? Several criteria may be used to gauge current and future staffing levels. One indicator, additional air routes, would suggest a surplus of pilots in the near term. After 9/11, the airline industry went through a drastic reduction in staffing. While the industry has largely recovered from this, it has been a slow one with traffic still not at pre 9/11 levels. In 2012, Boeing conducted a study which forecast a need of 70,000 pilots by 2024. This is, in part, based upon a projected demand of new aircraft orders at an increase of 1.4% per year over the next decade. The results of this study are a mixed bag, suggesting a slow expansion at the major airlines with a corresponding reduction at the regionals. Flight school enrollment is another factor of pilot supply. While flight school enrollment has experienced a gradual decline over the last ten years, a recent General Accounting Office study indicated a demand of an additional 42,000 pilots between now and 2024. The study determined the projected pilot pool to be adequate to meet anticipated needs. However, the 1,500 hr. training requirement imposed by the FAA upon flight schools delays the certification of future pilots by an additional 12 to 18 mos., limiting the available pipeline of entry level pilots. The extension of mandatory retirement from age 60 to 65, approved by the FAA in 2007, will serve to reduce pilot attrition. This is partially offset by a reduction of former military pilots entering the airline force, which they believe has limited pay and growth potential. Furloughed pilots, whose positions were cut from their respective airlines due to unprofitable routes and other factors, are an ever present part of the pilot pool.
While the various studies and factors appear to offset one another, two problems remain certain. The cost of completing an Airline Transport Certificate coupled with a Bachelor’s degree now averages about $125,000, which could make an aviation career a domain of the wealthy. The other half of this problem is the relatively low starting salaries offered by the regional airlines. At the current levels, it takes entry level pilots ten years or more just to pay off the ATP training. Airlines and/or government assistance must be made available to insure the best qualified applicants serve as pilots. While the regional airlines have traditionally been stepping stones to careers with the majors, the regionals must seek to improve pay, benefits and overall working conditions to promote stability within their pilot force. A flight captain with ten or more years of service with the major airlines averages from $120,000 to $200,000 per year, the regionals about 60% of that. If these two problems can be addressed, we’ll not only have an adequate pilot supply but a highly capable one.