Luke O'Brien/Sun Contributor

To raise funds for local students to attend flight school, the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport hosted a Runway 5K on Sept. 17.

September 21, 2023

Learning to Fly: Ithaca Airport Hosts 5K to Address Pilot Shortage

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Amid a national pilot shortage, the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport held a 5K race on their runway to fundraise for local Ithaca students to attend flight school on Sunday, Sept. 17.

The event, once annual, was the first held since COVID-19 lockdowns. ITH partnered with the local East Hill Flying Club, an FAA certified flight school, to run the Runway 5K and raise money for local students to attend flight school. To participate in the race, runners had to pay a registration fee, with all proceeds going towards a scholarship fund. 

Since the pandemic, the nation’s airways have been gripped by a massive shortage of pilots. Flights are frequently delayed or canceled because there are no available pilots to fly the plane, according to Chris Stephany, Marketing and Air Service Development Administrator at ITH.

The crisis has hit hardest on rural airports that don’t have the pull larger cities do. Last year, American Airlines cut service to ITH, citing difficulty finding pilots to fly their regional planes. Much of the pilot shortage is caused by the aging workforce.

“Reduced flight options and occasional delays have been observed. While we work closely with our airline partners to address these challenges, the shortage does influence ticket pricing, and long-term planning is essential,” Stephany said.

Over the next 15 years, 50 percent of current pilots will be forced to retire as they hit the 65 year age limit for commercial pilots.

“Pilots have a mandatory retirement age. They forced a lot of people into retirement during the pandemic, and now that things have ramped back up, there’s a shortage of pilots,” Stephany said.

Students going to pilot schools cannot take out the same loans that students at traditional universities can, so the issue of cost is paramount in solving the pilot crisis, Stephany said. 

Attendees of the event had another opportunity to support the scholarship fund by eating at the pancake breakfast prepared by the East Hill Flying Club. Over 600 breakfasts were served to runners and their families, according to Stephany.

Directly outside the pancake breakfast, other aviation related groups found an opportunity to increase their presence in the community. The Ithaca Radio Control Society was represented by Jim Del Signore and Ray Zoolbaugh, local model plane operators. Del Signore and Zoolbaugh said their organization has declined in membership, but their commitment to the hobby has not wavered. On display were a number of planes designed and built by members of the club. They are hoping to attract new members, especially youth. 

“We’ve worked with a number of Cornell kids, especially from the Design Build Fly club on campus,” Del Signore said. 

Stephany assessed the race to be a success. The airport raised $10,160 with the help of runners and major donors, including C&S Steel and Tompkins Weekly. The full list of donors is available on the airport website

“We had an impressive Runway 5K turnout of 266 participants, ranging from ages four to 78, making it a truly inclusive community event,” Stephany said.

As an incentive to race, there was an opportunity to win a $250 travel voucher from ITH, reimbursing travel to and from the airport. Roberto Leon and Ella Whiffen were the overall winners, both finishing the 5k in under 20 minutes. For the other 264 participants, it was an opportunity to support a good cause and run in a non-traditional location.

The race began with a cascade of footsteps and the Foo Fighters’ “Learning to Fly.” Families and friends cheered on the runners, while a hot air balloon dominated the landscape. 

“It was definitely fun, it was my first time running on an airport,” said Serhan Arduac, a former research associate at Cornell. “Definitely next year if it happens, I want to join again.” 

Luke O’Brien ’27 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].