AUGUSTA, Maine — The University of Maine at Augusta and a local flight school are partnering to help students start careers in aviation, a field that will need to fill a lot of vacant positions in the future.
UMA officials will ask the University of Maine System Board of Trustees to approve the creation of a four-year bachelor of science program in aviation at UMA at its Jan. 28 meeting in Bangor. The idea will be pitched to the Academic and Student Affairs Committee that morning before going to the full board for approval.
The campus is partnering with Maine Instrument Flight, a Federal Aviation Administration-certified flight school founded in 1946 by Bill Perry, a flight instructor who trained World War II pilots. Perry’s son, who also is named Bill Perry, and daughter, Shirley Whitney, own the company today. Maine Instrument Flight provides flight instruction, charter flights and maintenance out of Augusta State Airport.
“I think it’s going to be a super marriage,” Perry, who at one time worked as a charter pilot for Harold Alfond, said Thursday morning. Perry said both his company and the university were excited about the program’s potential.
Maine Instrument Flight approached the university two years ago to suggest the partnership, according to Brenda McAleer, UMA’s dean of the College of Professional Studies.
“We’re very focused on workforce development,” she said Thursday.
The university and the flight school say there is a growing demand for flight instructors, freight, charter and commercial pilots, as more and more airline pilots are approaching retirement age.
The United States faces a severe pilot shortage in the next decade, with the average age of airline pilots in the high 40s and rising, and a mandatory retirement age of 65, according to FAA data.
“They can see that there’s going to be a huge number of people retiring from airlines, leaving a ton of jobs open,” Perry said, calling the future demand forecasts “almost unfillable.”
“Right now, it couldn’t be anymore timely for this degree program,” he said.
In the first year of the program, students would earn their private pilot certification, according to Paul McKeown, chief flight instructor for Maine Instrument Flight. Students follow that by earning their instrument rating in their second year, a commercial pilot certificate in their third year, and become certified flight instructors by the end of their fourth year, McKeown said.
Students will take courses ranging from aviation history and law to homeland security and meteorology, according to Greg Fehy, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UMA. Students will travel to Maine Instrument Flight to put what they learn into action by flying planes.
“There are aviation universities all over the country, but there’s never been anything like this in Maine,” McKeown said.
McAleer said that if the program receives trustee approval and accreditation, it could accept its first crop of students for the fall semester of 2013. She said she hopes to draw a dozen or so students in the first year of the program.
McKeown and Perry said airline pilots typically “climb the ladder,” starting out as a flight instructors until they move up to charter flights or hauling freight for companies like UPS, where airlines look to find pilots with enough experience to fly passengers.
McAleer said she sees potential for the growth and expansion of the program if it’s successful. UMA has a campus in Bangor near Bangor International Airport. She said that site could one day serve as a launching spot for a program in aircraft mechanics.