By Erin Richards
December 31, 2010
Sheboygan – It didn’t take Charlotte Haass long to consider switching part of her degree emphasis.
After her first time flying a single-engine Cessna 172 above her Sheboygan County college for about 30 minutes on a recent Thursday, Haass was ready to declare aviation her new minor.
“It sounds better than psychology,” said Haass, a 19-year-old sophomore who is majoring in biochemistry at Lakeland College.
The small, liberal arts college north of Plymouth recently announced it will introduce a four-year undergraduate degree minor in aviation next school year, the first of its kind in the state. While the aviation industry has experienced turbulence in recent years, officials say things are starting to look up and opportunities will exist for graduates with a solid education and good flying skills, especially in niche aviation jobs.
The college’s minor will include 31 credits of course work, ground school courses at Lakeland’s main Sheboygan area campus and flight training at the Sheboygan County Memorial Airport and at Green Bay’s Austin Straubel International Airport.
Lakeland’s partnership with Frontline Aviation, a flight school and charter service headquartered in Green Bay, comes as the economic downturn has resulted in job losses and wage cuts among commercial aviation staff. Many pilots were ousted in recent mergers of major airlines, and many flight schools around the country have closed due to the rising costs of training and insurance and lack of applicants who can afford to log the required number of hours.
On the upside, industry analysts are predicting a pilot shortage in the coming years as current commercial pilots reach the federally mandated retirement age of 65. Also, niche aviation jobs and careers in corporate charter flying are starting to get more attention. Fox Valley Technical College-Oshkosh, one of the state’s two-year colleges that host aviation programs, is trying to combine aviation and wild-land fire training to prepare pilots to fight forest fires.
“There are other opportunities to combine criminal justice and aviation to train U.S. Border Patrol pilots,” said Jared Huss, lead instructor of the aeronautics-pilot training program at Fox Valley.
Lakeland officials say their new program will benefit students by allowing them to pursue both a four-year degree in a traditional course of study and the aviation minor, rather than obtaining a certified flight instructor certificate at one of the state’s two-year college aviation programs and then having to transfer to complete their undergraduate studies elsewhere.
Lakeland has about 900 full-time, traditional day students and about 2,000 adults who enroll in evening programs. The school is well-known for its blended education format that combines face-to-face learning and online course work for students. It also has six satellite locations in addition to the main campus.
“Charters and corporations are looking for four-year, degreed pilots,” said Kathy Rath Marr, chair of the natural sciences division at Lakeland. “What we have always taught here are strong critical thinking skills. The idea is that students get a well-rounded education while they’re also pursuing a professional career in aviation.”
After students work up to their flight instructor certificates, they have to continue to log flight hours and build their skills. The airline transport pilot is the highest license a pilot can receive, and commercial airline pilots by law are required to have it.
Highs and lows
Dennis Sherwood, dean of campus affairs for Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, which also offers an aeronautics pilot-training program, said most pilots today are coming through the civilian ranks because the military is not training as many pilots. The use of unmanned aircraft in military operations is partly responsible for that trend.
Sherwood said the number of new pilot “starts” has been down with the economy, and insurance costs have increased the average cost of plane rental for an hour from about $70 or $80 to $165, which increases the cost of training. The cost for students to learn to fly with Frontline Aviation is about $125 per hour.
“The aviation industry has always been a roller coaster with big highs and big, big lows,” Sherwood said. “The need for pilots will likely increase when the economy improves, but there’s a certain amount of gamble to that. Nobody knows how long that will take.”
As for Haass, who appeared hooked from her liftoff at the Sheboygan airport to a slightly wobbly landing, the money situation would be a hurdle. She has a part-time job as a hazardous waste assistant and will have to figure out how to afford the approximate $27,000 Lakeland estimates it will cost students for the program.
But she wasn’t thinking about that as she slowed the Cessna to a stop in front of the Aviation Heritage Center and reluctantly removed the key from the ignition.
“Any questions?” Frontline instructor Joe Saunders asked.
Haass thought for a moment, then smiled.
“Wanna go up again?”