Students at a Los Banos helicopter school feel as though their hopes of becoming pilots are grounded.
The students were surprised last month when the school, part of a nationwide chain called Silver State Helicopters, closed without warning and the owners filed for bankruptcy.
Those students said not only did their training end abruptly, they're worried about repaying loans of $70,000 each that they took out to pay for the program.
A Las Vegas law firm representing Silver State referred inquiries to a public relations company, which did not return calls seeking comment.
Silver State Helicopters was based in North Las Vegas, Nev. Its founder and chief executive officer, Jerry Airola, is a Calaveras County native and former Los Banos police officer.
In a statement released after the Feb. 4 bankruptcy filing in Las Vegas, Silver State representatives said the company failed because tightening credit markets made it harder for students to get loans.
Aaron Bowers of Ripon said when the school closed, he'd completed only part of the course, but had designs on being a helicopter tour pilot in Hawaii.
Bowers, 31, said he signed up in 2006, and was told he'd need 800 hours of helicopter-flying time to be certified.
His instructors told him the course was geared for working adults, and someone could meet that 800-hour mark in 18 months.
But that was impossible the way the program was set up, Bowers said.
The school, based at Los Banos Airport, had only one or two helicopters available at any time, he said.
Bowers said there were other signs the school was in trouble, such as a drop-off in students toward the end. In the last four months, he remembered only one new student.
A school instructor who got instruction there said he feels betrayed by Silver State, which at one time had schools at 34 airports.
"It's not very good, morally or ethically," said Brandon Edeal, who's investigating whether to open a flight school of his own in Modesto.
Edeal, who worked at the school for nearly a year, said that in the last few months, there was constant turnover among managers and staff.
At the Los Banos school, he said, 42 students who paid for the course hadn't finished it when Silver State filed for bankruptcy.
In bankruptcy court filings, Silver State listed assets of $50,000 or less, but liabilities of $10 million to $50 million.
A trustee overseeing the bankruptcy case would not comment on Silver State's situation.
The filing noted that Silver State has 5,000 to 16,000 creditors, and that the unsecured creditors -- a group that includes former students -- likely would receive nothing.
Mike Fleming, another former student, said that's hard to take.
"I'm still deciding whether to take out another loan to finish at another school," said Fleming, 24, of Manteca. Since the school closed, he's gone back to a former job working for his father at a feed store.
When he was attending school, Fleming said, he was driving 150 miles round-trip for lessons at Los Banos.
"It was a big commitment, for nothing, basically," he said.
Fleming said he hopes his lender will waive part of the loan, which had terms that said repayment would begin six months after he completed the course.
Bowers said he's also concerned about the loan, which is to be repaid over 20 years, at 15 percent interest.
"I'm out on the loan, and I'm out on a future career," said Bowers, who joined a class-action lawsuit against the school. He said his lender has been unwilling to work with him.
"I feel like I've been scammed," he said.
The chief pilot at American Helicopters, a Fresno training school, said Silver State charged far above the industry standard.
John Thomas said his school charges $54,000 for a full-course package. "I really feel sorry for his (Silver State) students," Thomas said.
Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2331.