Friday, April 8, 2016 | 2:30 p.m.
Tattoos are forbidden. That’s the first rule of Greg Rochna’s brand of aviation is that tattoos are forbidden.
“Get arrested for pot, guess what happens?”
The stocky, barrel-chested former Army helicopter pilot points past his captive audience of Rancho High School aerospace engineering students at a big metal door.
“There’s the door. Walk out, because that’s the end of your career,” his voice booms around his hangar at Henderson Executive Airport.
That’s the second rule.
Today was field trip day for this group of quiet students with closely cropped haircuts and matching clean white polo shirts. Rancho High School’s aviation program is one of very few like it in the country. It has a partnership with Embry-Riddle, the “Harvard of the sky,” and gives roughly 400 students each year free access to training programs, equipment and opportunities that would otherwise out of their financial reach.
Right now, that means a tour of a slice of Rochna’s empire: Maverick Aviation Group.
Every year Maverick’s fleet of sleek EC130 Eurocopters, Beechcraft and Cessna airplanes take 275,000 people on whirlwind tours of the Grand Canyon and the Las Vegas Strip.
Business is booming, and the company has one message.
“We’re never not hiring,” said Bryan Kroten, the company’s vice president of marketing. Around 400 employees work at five locations in Nevada and Arizona and Hawaii.
According to Kroten, there’s a shortage of qualified mechanics and pilots in the state. But the company is not looking for just any pilot. They’re looking for pilots with “persona,” who can not only fly planes but who can deliver “bucket list moments” to the paying public.
After all, this is an industry where businesses live and die based on reviews on sites like TripAdvisor. A large “no mistakes” banner at the top of the hangar underscores the company’s approach.
And the students are getting a crash course.
“What makes a helicopter fly?” Jim Ogletree, one of the company’s chief pilots, asks a group of students standing next to a helicopter.
A student points to the machine’s engine. Ogletree shakes his head.
“Money,” he says. The students laugh.
Throughout the day, the students piled into cockpits, maintenance bays and engine rooms, asking questions and gawking at the company’s collection of state-of-the-art aircraft equipment and vast library of spare parts.
Their teacher is James Pemberton, a 43-year-old former Air Force mechanic who fell in love with airplanes while watching his grandfather work on DC-3’s in Puerto Rico.
“I’ve always been enchanted by aircraft,” he said. He did active duty in Europe, Asia and South America, recovering crashed planes and helicopters.
“We picked up whatever went down,” he said.
But with the exception of going into the military, the path into the pilot’s seat for most young people, especially the type of low-income minority students that populate schools like Rancho, isn’t as easy as it used to be. General aviation, a common entry point into flying for the civilian world, has been on a sharp decline due to rising costs associated with flying and owning planes. The number of private pilots fell 10 percent from 2000 to 2013, as did the number of relatively cheap, single-engine planes. That leaves specialized programs, mostly in schools like Rancho and technical colleges, the only viable alternative for students who want to earn their wings.
“Some of these students may have caught the bug, but they don’t know how to get there,” Pemberton said. “It can be a little hard getting them to focus, but the ones who stick with it will absolutely make it."