Struggling California town sees opportunity in looming airline pilot shortage

California city hopes to train young pilots

A California town on the verge of bankruptcy could be the U.S.'s biggest hope to combat a looming pilot shortage that would have effects around the globe. Reedley, California officials hope a new partnership with Boeing could turn into a job revolution as airlines try to recruit an estimated 800,000 new pilots over the next 20 years.

Reedley, formerly a busy training ground for World War II pilots, saw its economy rise and fall with the agriculture industry, according to Town Manager Nicole Zieba. She said the town's 33% unemployment rate and 76% low-income residents made her desperate to give Reedley something different.

Zieba applied for and won a technology grant that allowed her to buy four electric planes. The purchase meant that Reedley now held the largest concentration of electric aircraft in the world.

"The goal was, could we pull our families out of poverty by showing them careers in aviation? Which sounds a little strange except if you know the industry crisis that's brewing in aviation," she told CBS News' Meg Oliver.

She planned to use the planes to start a low-cost pilot training program until they attracted Boeing's attention. The aerospace giant saw an opportunity to stoke an early passion for flying, and joined Zieba's quest by donating two flight simulators, usually reserved for professional pilots, to the local school district.

The pilot crisis also spurred Air Force veteran John Johnson to found a flight science degree program at Reedley Junior College. According to Johnson, half the current workforce of airline pilots will retire within the next 15 years, so he saw an opportunity to inspire the sleepy town's youth.

"This is the best time in the history of the United States to become a commercial airline pilot," he said. With his program, students learn to fly at a state school rather than paying for expensive flying lessons. Most importantly, they would have a job waiting for them when they graduate.

The opportunity inspired 22-year-old Lorenzo Rios, who will be graduating with the first class of pilots this summer.

Rios said the flight class Johnson started was his favorite in school. He stressed it was "crucial" to expose children and teenagers to the industry at a young age.

"I didn't know what I wanted to do coming out of high school, and when I started flying the simulators, it changed my whole life," he said.

Now, Rios loves being in the sky. "This right here, I mean you really can't beat that view, it's just absolutely gorgeous."

Rios, the son of an Army Lieutenant Colonel, said training in his newfound passion would have been a "tough situation" without the ability to pay for school with his father's VA benefits.

Johnson, a veteran himself, accounted for the struggle. "We're the only state school in California that allows the use of federal financial aid, and allows the use of VA benefits to help cover the costs of flight training," he said.

Boeing is set to announce its partnership with Reedley sometime on Wednesday, a mutually beneficial deal that town officials hope will transform the agricultural region into a pilot training hub.