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How Do I Get There From Here?

by James Williams
Reprinted with permission from FAA Aviation News

So you want to be a professional pilot? The question on your mind then is: How do I get there from here? This article is aimed particularly at those who are just getting into aviation and who are looking at colleges. Thirty years ago there was no question. If you wanted to be a professional pilot, there was really only one option that gave you the best possible chance and that was the military. While that is still a good option it has become a lot less prevalent. Over the years there has been a rise in the number of programs at universities all over the country that allow pilots to earn their ratings while getting an education. The main thing to remember is that there is no silver bullet. There are advantages and disadvantages to every approach and it's really a personal decision. Ask yourself, "What works best for me?"

Today there are three real options to get that pilot position. First is still the military, which is probably the best training in the world, if you don't mind that whole getting shot at thing. The advantages are great, of course. Among them are all the training is free, you get to fly some very cool aircraft right out training, and, of course, the training quality is exceptional. The main disadvantage is you normally have a long commitment in exchange for all that high quality training. I won't discuss the military option here, but I'm sure if you contact your local recruiter they would be happy to give you more information.

For those who don't want to join up, there are now good options in the private sector. Your second option is to find an airport near the college of your choice and fly while you are in school. The main advantage of this approach is cost. On average, training outside of a university program will be less expensive than the training provided by the university and the ratings are the same. Many airports have a flight school and are more than willing to train you right through your basic Commercial Instrument Multi-engine and possibly your CFI, CFII, and MEI. The major disadvantage is that you now have to find time to fly while in a full academic program, which can be difficult, and you get no college credit for your flying or your ground school. I hear you saying, "Well, if I just want to be a pilot, why do I need to go to college at all?" The answer is that almost all major airlines require a four-year degree. They don't really care what the degree is in, but they want you to have one to prove you can stick with something and that you can learn at a professional level since they are going to put you into an intense and demanding training program to fly their airplanes.

Your third option is a university with a flight program. In these programs you not only get college credit for your ground school and flight courses; you also get assigned times to fly in most cases. Additionally, you get training that is of a known quality to those doing the hiring in the industry. With most university programs, chances are someone on the hiring committee either went to one of the universities or at least has heard of them. This gives you a major advantage. The tradeoff is, of course, cost. On average you'll pay more for the university training than outside the program and you'll pay more for your education than you would in a non-flight program. In general a university program will have greater facilities and require more overhead. This will generally lead to a higher cost to the student. The advantage is usually that university fleets will be on the average more modern than most private fleets.

For those of you who have never flown or even been in a small aircraft I would give one caution, try it first. So if you think you want to be a pilot you owe it to yourself to test the waters before jumping right in. Go to your local airport and take a couple flying lessons so you know what to expect. Flying an airplane isn't for everyone. It's a skill just like any number of other activities like driving, baseball, or swimming. Almost all of us can bounce a basketball, but that doesn't mean we're as good as Michael Jordan. Same idea goes for flying. Almost all of us have the physical requirements to fly, but that doesn't mean we're going to be a good pilot. Some people just don't have the aptitude for it. You have to be able to divide your attention and think in three dimensions, which some people have trouble with. You also have to be able to multi-task. That is why I would urge you try flying before you commit yourself to a university flight program. A couple hours of lessons could help you figure out if this is what you want. If it doesn't work out there are always plenty of jobs available in the industry that doesn't include flying. Many universities have programs for these kinds of jobs'those who want to be in the aviation industry, but don't want to fly. Flying isn't always going to be fun and working as a pilot isn't always going to be great, but you should enjoy it at a basic level. If you don't, you're probably heading in the wrong direction.

Having said that, I also must again impress upon you that there is no "right" way. It is really a matter of finding the way that works for you. What follows will be a brief look at a few of programs out there. The number one thing I can say is, do your research. If this is the path you choose, it's going to be very expensive so you want be sure you're getting what's best for you. Please remember, this is not an exhaustive list. There are a lot of programs I can't cover in the very limited space available. So once again, do your research. The goal here is simply to give you an idea of what's out there'not to be a definitive source for comparison. Also it's worth waiting to see what kind financial aid a school will offer you before you make any decision. What schools offer in terms of scholarships and grants vary widely so don't just look at the initial rate because at some schools most students don't pay the full amount. A friend of mine, who worked as an admission counselor at one university, once told me that almost no students paid the listed tuition at his school; whereas at the competitor up the road, most did.

Here are a few things to consider when looking at schools. First aircraft availability, will you be able to get to fly when you arrive. This is key. A few years ago Embry Riddle Daytona had a problem with getting students time in aircraft, which prevented them from flying until at least the second semester of their freshman year. I know because I was one of the people who got the letter explaining the problem. I had already decided against going to Embry Riddle for other reasons, but I know people for whom this was a deciding factor. Another thing to consider is student to facility ratio. This can vary widely and isn't exact, but is a good general measure of what class sizes you can expect in your higher-level core courses.

Something to consider when you start your college career is getting involved in extracurricular activities. At most aviation schools there are groups of people like you who like airplanes and fly and these could be valuable resources for you. Personally I joined two organizations and they have been invaluable not only while I was in school but after I left.

The first group was Alpha Eta Rho International Aviation fraternity. This Coed fraternity is in many cases composed of very different people whose main common interest is aviation. In addition to providing a support network for you on campus they also have an extensive alumni network from many different schools that can help you make contacts in the industry. Alpha Eta Rho also allows many students to get involved in leadership roles, which provide valuable experience.

The second group I joined was my school's National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA) flight team. These teams compete in flying and ground event against teams from other schools at the regional and national level. Ground events include flight planning, flight computer (E6B) use, simulator flying, aircraft recognition, and more. Flying events offer power on and off spot landings, navigation, and message drop (where pilots do a "bombing run" on two targets with small light weight wood boxes). I was lucky enough to compete in all four regional competitions I was eligible for and three national competitions. We qualified for the fourth national competition, but funding issues prevented us from attending.

One of the best parts of competing was traveling to the competition location. During my NIFA career we traveled to five regional and national competitions (we hosted the other two). These trips rank among the highlights of my college experience. I mean how many private pilots can say they've flown from Melbourne, Florida, to Grand Forks, North Dakota, in GA airplane. In addition to having a fantastic time these flights offer a valuable training experience. You have to plan and fly a real cross-country without the safety net of instructors and professors. You also have to deal with bad weather and unfamiliar areas along your route. Another learning experience is that many of the teams get little active support from the school so member have to request funding and deal with bureaucracies at the school, which is an important life lesson.

In no particular order, here are some of the programs out there. Just one last word of advice, Go visit at least a couple of your options because what looks good on paper doesn't always translate into reality.

Florida Institute of Technology, College of Aeronautics, Melbourne, Florida

Located in Melbourne, about an hour southeast of Orlando along Florida's east coast, Florida Tech is a full university with undergraduate, masters, and doctoral programs in Aeronautics. The University operates a part 141-flight school with examining authority. That means that all check rides and tests are done in house and lower minimum flight times are required for certification. The fleet consists mainly of Piper aircraft including, 21 Warriors (PA28-161), 4 Arrows (PA28R-201), and 3 Seminoles (PA44-180) Multi-engine trainers. There are also 2 Cessna C-172SPs, 1 Cirrus Design SR-22, and 1 American Champion Citabria. This fleet allows Florida Tech to provide a full flight-training program from zero hours to Multi-engine Instructor and more. Florida Tech is a smaller university with about 2,400 undergraduate and 2,400 graduate students in all disciplines and about 350 students in the College of Aeronautics with about 270 of those flight students. One of the advantages of Florida Tech is that as a full university, there are other majors and colleges their and those departments and not aviation professors pressed into service in an unfamiliar area teach your non-aviation classes. I must confess that Florida Tech is my alma mater, so I'm not completely unbiased. That said I would say Florida Tech is a good fit for a student who wants a smaller school with a good aviation program. The smaller class sizes allowed me to get to know my professors and fellow students. Also, as a smaller university, I was almost always able to resolve whatever administrative issues I had relatively quickly and easily. "Florida Tech is proud of the reputation in the industry of its graduates for high quality training both in and out of the airplane," Interim Dean Dr. Kenneth Crooks said. They are currently in the planning phase for a new $3.1 million flight operations facility at the airport. For more information about Florida Tech you can visit <www.fit.edu>.

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Florida

With its main campus on Daytona Beach International Airport, Embry Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) is a focused aviation university. They operate a part 141-flight school with examining authority. Embry Riddle offers bachelors and masters degrees in aviation. About 4,700 students attend the Daytona Beach campus. ERAU also has a campus in Prescott Arizona (discussed later in this article) and numerous extended campuses around the country. Additionally ERAU offers distance learning via the Internet. The school's fleet consists of 40 Cessna Skyhawks (C-172), 5 Piper Arrows, and 12 Piper Seminoles.

Daytona Beach offers more of a city feeling than Melbourne to the south. Daytona Beach is a big tourist destination and has more amenities, but with that comes the added traffic and generally higher cost. As I've said before it really depends on your own personal preference. The Daytona Beach campus offers the advantage of being located on the airport, whereas most other programs are located off airport and have separate facilities. This allows students to walk from class to flight lessons without using some kind of shuttle service to the airport. Embry Riddle's Daytona Beach operation is fairly large by the standards set by most other universities. The major advantage is that aviation is the main force behind the university and, as such, it doesn't really have to compete for resources, as programs at other universities might have to. The main disadvantage would be that as a large program you could possibly have trouble with congestion on the airport and in the surrounding air space. This is made worse by other training programs and moderate airline traffic located at the Daytona Beach International Airport. These concerns do not seems to prevent the Daytona campus from providing good training, but they might pose a slight challenge for finding a clear area for some training maneuvers. For more information about Embry Riddle Daytona Beach campus you can visit <www.erau.edu>

Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, Arizona

Located in Arizona, Embry Riddle's Prescott campus is one of the best options for those looking to go to school in the western United States. Its fleet consists of 17 Cessna Sky-hawks (up rated to 180hp to combat the high altitude), 8 Piper Seminoles, 2 Cessna C-182RGs, and 2 Super Decathlons. The Prescott campus serves about 1,630 students. Prescott feels almost like a separate institution. Certainly the surroundings are quite different considering the obvious differences between a Florida beach town and a small town in the Arizona desert. During the winter Prescott can get snow on occasion, but it melts quickly and the overall climate is great for flying. Associate Dean Sean Jeralds says that the structure and standardization provided by his program is a key advantage. The Prescott campus began using and testing Automatic Dependant Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) equipment after signing an agreement with the FAA in 2002. The system allows pilots to see the location of all other ADS-B equipped aircraft in the area and record flights, in addition to many other features. This is a useful tool not only for avoiding other aircraft but also for instructor reviews of flight lessons. The campus plans to transition to glass cockpits in their Cessna 172-fleet during 2007. Dean Jeralds cites the ability to memorize and retain large quantities of information and situational awareness as two of the most important qualities of successful students. For more information about Embry Riddle's Prescott campus visit <www.erau.edu>.

University of North Dakota, John D. Odegard School Of Aerospace Sciences, Grand Forks, North Dakota

The University of North Dakota at Grand Forks is located in northeastern North Dakota about three hours northwest of Minneapolis. If you can deal with the weather, UND offers a good balance of a medium to large-sized university with state funding and all the advantages that lends. The university offers bachelors and masters degrees in aviation. The schools fleet consists of 37 Piper Warriors, 9 Piper Arrows, 12 Piper Seminoles, 1 Piper Top Cub on amphibian floats, 2 Super Decathlons, 4 Cirrus SR-20s, 1 Diamond Twin Star, 5 Schweizer H-300 Helicopters, 2 Bell 206 Jet Ranger Helicopters, and a McDonnell-Douglas DC-8-72, operated for NASA research. The campus has an enrollment of about 13,000 total students with about 1,500 aviation students, around 1,000 of which are flight students. UND is probably the best bargain in an aviation university because North Dakota residence is relatively easy to establish and in state tuition is a lot less expensive than most of the other schools. Being a state school has another advantage in a much larger budget for aircraft and facilities. During my two visits I was stunned by the high quality and vastness of the facilities. That said there is a price to be paid. That price is location. Between the weather and a relatively remote location many people don't consider UND. The weather issue is to be expected of any university located as far north as UND, but it poses more interesting challenges for a flight student. That aside, 75% of the time the weather is VFR. As UND's Kent Lovelace pointed out, "you have to learn to fly in all four seasons." Professor Lovelace also points to the University's dedication to academic excellence in its students and curriculum as an advantage over other programs. UND is definitely worth consideration and a visit if you're looking at aviation universities. You might want to visit during the winter just to make sure you can take the cold, otherwise you could be in for a very rude awakening. For those looking for high quality aviation education and a cool climate UND could an excellent solution. For more information you can visit <www.und.edu>.

Kansas State University, College of Technology and Aviation, Salina, Kansas

Kansas State University (K-State) at Salina is a full university-offering bachelor's in either professional pilot or aviation maintenance curriculums. A University of 23,000 students, K-State has 248 aviation students of which 202 are flight students. Professor Marlon Johnston looks to K-State's unique ability to provide hands on experience in a corporate flight department, as well as excellent all around training, as a major advantage of K-State's program. Some senior students are able to work as a first officer on either a Beech C90 King Air or Cessna Citation that is tasked with meeting the university's travel needs. In this role, students work with the captain to learn about every facet of corporate operations. As Professor Johnston said, "It's not just training, it's real world experience." As a state university, tuition is dramatically reduced with state residency, so check local laws to see what is required to establish residency. Weather in Kansas does mean you'll get familiar with all four seasons, but it has no significant impact on student progress. K-State also has an aviation maintenance program for students interested in becoming an Airframe and Power Plant mechanic. Adding in the other facets of a major university, such as a large student body, full athletic programs, and greater resources, many students will find it may be the best fit for them. While the aviation program may be smaller than some, you get more of the big college experience than at smaller more focused schools. For more information you can visit <www.k-state.edu>.

Utah State University, College of Engineering, Logan, Utah

Located in Logan, about 80 miles northeast of Salt Lake City, Utah State has about 23,000 students in its seven colleges. Of those about 400 are aviation students and about 300 of those are flight students. Utah State Director of Aviation, Dr. Rick Charles, points to the high quality of training and very reasonable cost as a distinct advantage Utah State offers. When compared to some of the competition, Utah State's cost structure is impressively low. Another factor is the impressive geography of northern Utah. Logan is located in a valley which means students learn to fly in mountainous terrain. The university has rigorous training programs with extra attention paid to safety and mountain flying. The result is that students enjoy great success finding employment after graduation. Utah State operates a recently modernized fleet of 10 Diamond DA-40s, 2 DA-42 Twinstars, and 3 Piper Arrows. The Diamond aircraft feature Garmin G1000' glass cockpits. Being located in northern Utah, some weather delays are possible. While most students finish flight courses on time, there is a slight chance of some overlap. Between the high quality of its training and a lower cost than any of its competitors, Utah State could be a very good choice for a lot of people out there. For more information, visit <www.usu.edu>.

As I said in beginning this article there is no silver bullet that will work for everyone. The thing to remember is you have to find a method and a place that works for you. This is just a very small sample of some of the aviation programs out there, so look around and see what you find. No one program mentioned or not mentioned here is any better than another. The goal is to find a place where you're going to be comfortable and happy. It could be the best program in the world, but if it doesn't fit your needs and lifestyle, then it's no good for you. One of the things almost all of the representatives contacted for this article agreed on is that you have to do what's right for you and that not everyone is right for every program.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating, do your research. This is no different from any big decision in life. The more prepared you are the better your chances of making a decision that's right for you. I've tried to stress that there are no right or wrong choices here, just choices that are better or worse for you.

Another thing to consider, keep an open mind. I know I had some pretty strong preconceived notions going into my selection process. After visiting my three favorite schools, my preconceived notions proved wrong and my preference order was inverted. The school I had assumed would be my favorite turned out to be a disappointment in ways I couldn't really put a finger on.

That leads me to another important restatement; visit at least a few of your possible choices. This is the place you're going to be spending the next three or four years of your life and a lot of money, so it's worth the cost to travel there and make sure it's what you want and what's going to work best for you.

At the beginning we asked a simple question: How do I get to a professional pilot career? It turns out the answer isn't so simple. That's because there is no single right answer. We are all different people and have different needs and objectives. Remember it's a long road to that airline or corporate job of your dreams and this is just the first step. Keep in mind that no one can guarantee you a job when you start any program. It takes a lot of hard work to get through any professional flight program and then you still have to build experience and market yourself to the industry (this is especially true if you're going for a corporate job). Most schools are helpful in finding jobs opportunities, but remember it's up to you to make sure it happens.

Many schools will tout the benefits of doing an internship with an airline or other company to make contacts. A lot of airlines offer guaranteed interviews and lowered minimum time requirements for successful interns. In personal experience I've seen internships help people and I've seen them hurt people. Overall I'd say they are useful, but not necessary. Remember internships don't guarantee you a job; they only help you get your foot in the door.

In the end it all comes down to the single question: What's best for me?