HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — As a pilot shortage continues to delay flights and set back the airline industry, a West Michigan nonprofit is looking to help fill the need for generations to come.

The nonprofit Flight Path is aiming to spark the next generation of pilots when the airline industry especially needs them.

“This is our future,” said Flight Path President Jeff Vos. “They can do it. A lot of kids don’t even know about the opportunities in aviation. If we give them a positive experience here, they think now going home, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”

Vos said that a few years ago, he saw the need for more pilots across the industry and realized it provided a good opportunity to inspire young people to pursue the career path. Vos and other managers from the former Park Township Airport decided to create the program.

Although airlines bounced back after the pandemic, they struggled to bring enough pilots back into the fold. A 2022 analysis by the consulting firm Oliver Wyman estimates the U.S. airline industry is short 8,000 pilots and that things will get even worse over the next decade as demand continues to outpace the number of pilots around.

“Some of your viewers have already experienced it with flight cancellations happening,” Vos said. “It’s a real thing.”

Four times a month, middle schoolers and high schoolers from around the area come to West Michigan Regional Airport in Holland for a “Flight Night.” Vos said kids from Indiana have even showed up for the program, which is completely supported by donors.

They start off in the classroom with a history lesson, a rundown of what makes flights possible, a tour of planes inside their hangar and then a taste of the real deal: four flight simulators including one that real pilot trainees use to get certified.

“If the kids can fly that flight simulator, they can fly a real airplane,” Vos said. “It’s that realistic.”

Nearly two dozen volunteers take part in the program, many of whom are pilots themselves. Vos said that a retired Navy aviator and the former head of traffic control for the Federal Aviation Administration in Grand Rapids are part of the team.

“We just want to share the excitement and fun we have because somebody did that with us when we were young,” Vos said.

His father, a longtime pilot, inspired him to pursue the same career path.

“Learning to fly has been one of the best things I’ve ever done,” he said.

Vos said 650 kids have gone through the program and several are now training to become pilots for real, some through flight schools and others in the military.

“It’s why I do this program, just to see the changes in the kids,” Vos said.