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EKU program prepares students for direct flight into aviation career

Ralph Gibbs in front of aircraft

Business Lexington, by Andrea Stang
On the first day of class, chief flight instructor Ralph Gibbs shares with students his view that flying is the "ultimate rush" — but only after spending a good five minutes warning them that the pursuit of a professional flight degree is not an easy mission. It involves a lot of time and work, and students must be truly invested in flying to make it through the program.

That program includes one of two degree paths — aerospace management or professional flight — available through the College of Business and Technology at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) for students interested in a career in aviation. With the U.S. Department of Labor projecting an increase of as much as 10 percent in the employment of aircraft pilots through 2014, EKU is making plans to continue expanding its aviation program, which has, since the early '90s, offered the only four-year, university-based aviation degree in Kentucky.

The presence of a program such as this in Kentucky offers students a more cost-effective, yet equally beneficial, alternative to a dedicated aviation school such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. A prospective student might then ask, why not simply consider an airport's flight school and forgo the cost of the college route?

"The most important differentiator between a university program and a non-university flight school at any airport in the United States is the bachelor's degree associated with the university," said Gibbs. "Most major air carriers, i.e. American, United, Delta, etc., require a bachelor's degree just to get an interview."

Gibbs, a former flight instructor with the Naval Aviation Training Command and U.S. Marine Corps aircraft maintenance officer, with a myriad of education and teaching experience, took command of the professional flight option at EKU in the fall of 2011. Gibbs, along with the other aviation faculty, has big plans in store for the program, many of which are already in motion. To start, he plans to make significant changes to the curriculum that will make EKU's aviation graduates more competitive in the job market.

"By next fall, I want to add the flight instructor ratings back into the degree, which will allow students to gain an entry-level job after graduation to build their flight hours," said Gibbs. "Also, I am proposing a new multi-engine option to the pro-flight degree that will increase graduating student MEL (multi-engine) hours from approximately 20 to 100-plus. Both the instructor ratings and increased MEL hours will make our graduates more competitive in getting their first flying job."

Beginning next semester, students on the professional flight degree path will receive flight certification in private pilot, MEL, instrument, commercial, and flight instructor training. All of these certifications, along with the bachelor's degree, prepare students for employment at major airlines. Simultaneously, they will experience flight simulation in up to 15 aircraft types, real flight operations, actual weather and long-range flights.

"Flight training is the most difficult task most of our students will ever undertake. Because of the extensive out-of-class time to prepare for each flight in the private pilot flight lab, not to mention their other 'reading, writing and arithmetic' courses. I limit all my students to 15 semester hours each term. Having said that, because flying is the ultimate rush, most students will find their first term to be very exhilarating," said Gibbs.

The university currently hangers a fleet of seven Cessna 150/172 for single-engine land training (SEL) and one Piper Seneca for multi-engine land (MEL) training at Madison County Airport. After working closely with the airport board on growth, and a 500-foot runway extension in July, the university assumed management oversight of the airport in August. By this summer, the university anticipates its fleet, complete with EKU color scheme, will grow to 12 single-engine aircraft and three twin-engine planes.

"When I first started in the program, I felt a little overwhelmed and didn't know what to expect," said Marty Dye, a junior in the professional flight degree path. "Then, it just clicked and I fell in love. Here, they treat you like you are part of a family — it's a really tight-knit group."

The program administrators work with student services and housing staff to orchestrate monthly social activities for aviation students, who even have two floors of an EKU dorm referred to as "the flight deck." As close as the aviation department is to its students, however, they aren't the ones footing the bill for a degree that's costlier than a more traditional route — that's left for the student and their parents/guardians.

Gibbs, however, has a comparison to put the eventual worth into perspective. He explained that a professional pilot flying for the major airlines can make upwards of a six-figure income. So, if a prospective student and his or her family were to consider, in comparison, the up-front cost and time to train to become a doctor or a lawyer, along with the earnings potential, the aviation degrees are comparable in terms of return on investment and yet offer a similar completion timeframe of a traditional, four-year degree. New veterans, in particular, should consider taking advantage of the unique opportunity available to them with an aviation program, Gibbs said.

"The post-9/11 veteran benefits are very generous. For example, the Vietnam era benefits only paid for 60 percent of flight training as long as the vet paid for his/her private pilot rating," said Gibbs. "The new post-9/11 benefit package will pay for all tuition and all flight fees, as long as the veteran attends a university and the flight training is part of a degree program. Additionally, any veteran taking 12 semester hours or more will receive a cost of living allowance. This VA benefit is not as inclusive for flight training completed at non-university flight schools. In fact, it is capped at $11,000 per year."

Whether the degree is paid for by VA benefits, scholarships or out-of-pocket, aviation majors are looking at a promising future. The aviation industry is a forecasting significant shortage of commercial pilots in the upcoming years. The primary reason for the shortage is that many commercial pilots in the Baby-Boomer generation are now reaching the FAA-mandated retirement age of 65. This leaves room for new pilots to move higher in the ranks at a faster pace, after they complete their flight training and certifications.

"I've always wanted to be a pilot," said Wesley Warner Nelson, a junior double aviation major, with a minor in business. "But it's a challenge to motivate yourself to fly regularly. It's your responsibility to catch up (on flight hours) and accomplish your goals. You just have to be prepared to learn a lot, but have a great time."

The EKU aviation program strives to continue providing the industry with safe, exceptionally trained and adaptable pilots and managers. But the faculty and staff recognize that when it comes down to it, the true mission of the program is to encourage and enrich the students' love for flying.

As Nelson mentioned, "The first time you're behind the controls of an airplane, it's an amazing feeling you just can't describe."

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Published on February 15, 2012

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