BILLINGS — Leatherneck Aviation is a new flight school landing in Billings this month. It was started by a third-generation pilot who is 23 years old.
Jacob Schneller grew up around the industry; his grandfather and father were both pilots.
“Aviation gets in your blood, and I want to bring back the joy of flying and the fun of flying,” Schneller said. “I loved it and got the flying bug at a young age, and just knew I always wanted to do that.”
Schneller said he "grew up" in the back of airplane hangers and around planes. He knew he wanted to be in the industry, too. But it wasn't always an easy decision to make.
“My dad passed away in a plane crash and it just kind of stunted a lot of things. My mom didn’t want me to fly obviously. My family kind of discouraged it,” he said.
But Schneller still went to Rocky Mountain College for aviation management. Halfway through schooling, he enlisted in the Marine Corps, which is where he got the name Leatherneck Aviation.
“Leatherneck is a nickname for a marine. It’s just one of those things that we take pride in. It goes back to the days when we use to wear leather around our uniform to keep our neck upright. I wanted this to be a very historical business. I wanted to still keep my ties to the Marine Corps,” he said.
Dan Hargrove, the director of aviation at Rocky Mountain College, said the interest in flying is on the rise. He anticipates a full-capacity class next fall with 150 students in the program. But not all students entering have goals of being an airline pilot.
“There's a whole bunch of jobs in cargo, charter, cooperate, fighting forest fires, which is super important in this part of the country. So, we’re very proud that we’re producing graduates that go do all those other things, as well,” Hargrove said.
Hargrove said the national pilot shortage that the U.S. is seeing was accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, airlines are increasing pay to try to boost interest, but it will still take time before seeing results.
“You can’t create an airline pilot overnight. Just like you can’t create a doctor overnight. If a well-educated, intelligent person says they want to be a captain at Delta Airlines [it would take] 10 or 15 years if everything goes perfectly, before they get to that level,” Hargrove said.
Hargrove said starting a flight school takes a lot of work, but knows Schneller and believes he will be successful.
“The thing about Jacob is he just has tons of energy, tons of ideas. And just like any other business in America, if you’re working hard at it, and committed and you’re a professional you’ll do well,” said Hargrove.
Schneller said if the interest is there, anyone can learn to fly at Leatherneck Aviation.
“If you’re a zero-time pilot and you just saw an airplane one day and said I want to do that, we can set you down from zero time and get you up to your check ride,” he said.
He hopes to be fully running by the end of March with an affordable and welcoming flight school.
Prices start at $130 an hour to rent the airplane. They also offer a 10-hour block at $120 an hour. Certified Flight Instructor rates are $45 per hour for in-flight instruction and $20 per hour for ground instruction.
“Flying is a fun experience. It’s something that, it really does get in your blood. And if you get caught by the bug that itch never goes away,” Schneller said.