February 1, 2007
The Salt Lake Tribune
Westminster College has program for budding pilots
Westminster College enjoys a reputation far beyond Salt Lake City as a top-flight private private liberal arts college. One reason for its high standing is a little-known baccalaureate program that trains students for jobs in the airline industry.
The school's Aviation Studies Program offers a degree to students who want to be managers in the aviation industry. A second flight operations curriculum readies undergraduates for careers as commercial airline pilots.
"It's an unusual fit [with Westminster's liberal arts tradition], I think that's true. But the college's vision and mission statement does become a good fit with the program," director Mike Kraus said.
Westminster offers academic programs aimed at blending time-honored arts, social science and natural science classes with courses that teach professional and technical skills, such as aviation studies.
"It's demanding, in that you have all of the liberal arts classes of a normal college (program), as well as aviation classes," junior Mark West said.
Global demand for pilots is surging. Aerospace giant Boeing Co. estimates that demand for new aviators at nearly 18,000 a year through 2024. The appetite is in sharp contrast to the years before the airline industry was deregulated. Airline companies hired only about 500 fresh fliers a year until 1978, when the industry was freed from government control of fares and routes.
In its 25-year history, the aviation program at Westminster has graduated about 600 students. Most have chosen the flight-operations path. West is one of roughly 115 students enrolled in flight operations this year.
West wants to fly airplanes, but isn't interested in working as a commercial airline aviator. His goal is to be a demonstration pilot, working for an aircraft manufacturer or for the government.
"The thing that interests me is learning how airplanes work and why they do exactly what they do, so sort of from an engineer's perspective, but more from the people side and flying the aircraft. I like dealing with people, and I like demonstrating what aircraft are capable of and the different uses of them," West said.
West enrolled at Westminster in 2004 after a year at the University of Utah. He juggles as many as five academic classes each semester against a busy flying schedule. He has earned a private pilot's license. By the time he graduates, he will have obtained all of the certificates and licenses necessary for a commercial license.
What he will still lack is flying time. Westminster students typically graduate with 250 hours to 300 hours of flying experience. Kraus, who directs the program, says that isn't enough time in the cockpit to qualify for anything more than an entry-level flying job.
"The types of jobs they'll get is doing things like banner towing, aerial photography or pipeline (monitoring) control," Kraus said.
Which is why most of his students become flight instructors. They work part time or full time for the college, teaching younger pilots, while building up enough flight-hours to qualify for jobs at regional airlines.
"Right now, I'm a certified pilot, but I'm lacking experience," West said. "It's sort of like being a dentist or a doctor, where you graduate from the program, saying, 'Yes, you are a pilot, but you need experience before you can go to an airline or some real professional career.' "
Hands-on flight training takes place on campus, where students can practice on a flight simulator. The program also has a fleet of 12 Piper planes housed in a hangar near Salt Lake City International Airport. Students fly planes into the Tooele and Utah valleys and north toward Ogden, where they practice takeoffs and touchdowns at rural runways.
The aviation program develops highly skilled pilots. Last year, West won top pilot honors at a regional collegiate flying competition that included cadet aviators from the U.S. Air Force Academy near Colorado Springs, Colo. The Westminster team came in second behind the Air Force Academy.
"We've seen great success with the recruits that we've had from Westminster. It's nice to recruit from Utah, because they have a grass-roots connection to the state," said Camille Ence, manager of pilot recruitment at SkyWest Airlines in St. George.