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Aviation program is soaring above capacity

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Oklahoma State University Flight Center on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, at the Stillwater Airport.

Oklahoma State’s Flight Center was forced to cap its enrollment at 75 students after an enrollment class of 108 put the program well over its capacity.

This created an array of scheduling problems due to the lack of planes and insufficient facilities. The program currently has 300 students enrolled, double the number the program was at previously.

Aviation junior Alec Martinez reflected on the program's growth.

“Last year was relatively disorganized, and often instructors were overbooked because of how many people joined the program,” Martinez said. “The cap has improved the scheduling and made everything a lot easier for both students and instructors.”

Part of the program's expansion is the addition of five new Cirrus SR20s aircrafts.

Flight center program manager Lance Fortney said they will also provide a new layer of safety, unique to the Cirrus planes, along with creating more flight opportunities for students.

“It has what is called a parachute system. It's the Cirrus Aircraft Parachute System or CAPS,” Fortney said. “If the engine were to stop mid-flight and you couldn’t get it started, you would pull a handle and a big 'ol parachute pops out and the aircraft comes down. Now it’s not going to be a nice, soft landing but you’re going to walk away from it.”

Along with the addition of new aircraft, the flight center will be moving to a new facility that is set to finish construction in the summer of 2021. This construction was recently approved by the Oklahoma Board of Regents and includes funding from both the university and the federal government.

According to flight center coordinator and an aviation professor Matt Vance, the rise in program popularity is largely due to two things: the lower cost of Oklahoma State’s aviation program in comparison to nearby programs and the mixture of a university and airport experience.

Another factor in the increasing enrollment is the demand from the airline industry. Airlines are currently losing more pilots than they are hiring due to the mandatory retirement age for the industry being 65. The people reaching this cut off currently are mostly Vietnam War veterans, which makes up a large population of pilots in the industry.

“There was a pilot for a major airline here the other day with his son and he said they’re losing about 1,000 pilots a year,” Fortney said. “The point is, they’re losing pilots faster than we can produce them. When I say we, I don’t just mean OSU, I mean all pilot programs across the country.”

This increase in demand for the piloting industry means the job market is promising for college graduates looking to enter the workforce immediately after graduating. The OSU Flight Center offers a cadet program centered around employing graduates of the program. Graduates sign contracts with airline companies like Envoy or PSA where they work as instructors for the university until they get the required 1,000 hours of flight time to become a commercial pilot.

“The concept is you get all your licenses, ratings and education with OSU but you’re in the ‘need a job for experience, need experience for a job conundrum,” Fortney said. “Well, you stay here and fly with us as an instructor until you build experience and then you go on to the regional airline. There are these cadet programs where the airline says, ‘we want you, as a matter of fact we are going to hire you now and wait until you get your experience.’”

Despite the incoming facilities and additional aircrafts, the enrollment limit for the program appears to be staying for some time. Lance Fortney said the program is still trying to catch up to accommodate 300 students and the logistics of expanding the program further are far from being accomplished.

“Once we catch-up, once we’re in the new flight center, once we have some more aircraft and things are going well, then we may consider growing,” Fortney said. “But that’s down the road, there’s enough on our plate. What you’ve got to keep in mind, and it’s not unique aviation but it can be a little bit different: there are so many other logistical things that go on behind the scenes that you may not think of when you think of a traditional math or English class.”

With the addition of five more aircrafts, the program will have 32 planes available to students, putting the student to plane ratio at just over 10:1. Dr. Vance said this ratio makes scheduling much more flexible than it was before.

By limiting the program’s capacity and expanding the facilities and aircraft available, the OSU Flight Center is focusing on creating industry-ready graduates to fill the increasing demands for pilots.

“I think we have determined that 10:1 is manageable,” Vance said. “But 8:1 would give us that buffer, to where the likelihood that the plane would be your impediment goes down dramatically.”