A new bachelor’s degree in aeronautical sciences at the University of Hawaii at Hilo could start training students to become commercial pilots or operators of unmanned aircraft as soon as next year.
The UH Board of Regents voted overwhelmingly Nov. 15 to approve the new provisional degree program, with one track for professional pilot training and the other focusing on unmanned aviation systems.
“This is a chance for local kids to compete,” said Ken Hon, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs at UH Hilo. “We’re looking at the shortage in commercial airline pilots and also looking at this huge developing field in unmanned aircraft systems.”
Students will spend their first three years at UH studying a common curriculum on commercial aviation, with flight simulation labs as well as courses in subjects such as aviation safety, weather, navigation, physics and multi-engine operations.
In their fourth year, students on the pilot track will spend six to nine months in intensive flight training on the mainland, which will be credited back to UH.
The pilot proposal is modeled on the way the military trains its pilots, with intensive flight school coming after completion of a college degree, Hon said. But UH Hilo’s approach will save students one year of college.
The plan will cut costs by as much as 50 percent for Hawaii students, who now have to go to the mainland for aeronautical science degrees.
“The vast majority of airline pilots who are flying today have bachelor’s degrees as well as flight credentials, so that’s the most reliable way to get into that job,” said Peter Forman, a retired commercial airline pilot.
UH Hilo projects tuition for the pilot degree at $22,000 in tuition at UH Hilo plus $76,000 for flight instruction, likely through ATP Flight Schools on the mainland. By comparison, at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona, tuition runs $142,600 plus $80,000 for flight instruction.
With fees, books, room, board and transportation factored in, the cost for local students at UH Hilo would be 50 percent less than at Embry Riddle and about 30 percent less than Central Washington University’s four-year program, according to documents submitted to the regents.
The “drone track” students will stay at UH Hilo their fourth year and focus on unmanned flight, data collection and analysis. UH Hilo’s expertise in remote sensing has already been in high demand on the island, from monitoring lava flows to tracking forest health.
“We view this as a cost-effective way for the students to complete this pathway toward a career which, if not now, will be in very high demand,” said Marcia Sakai, interim chancellor at UH Hilo.
Although the aeronautical science degree will be based at UH Hilo, students may complete their first two years at any UH community college, making it more accessible and affordable to students statewide.
State Sen. Kai Kahele, a pilot for Hawaiian Airlines, said he is “elated” with the regents’ decision. His father, the late Sen. Gil Kahele, had pushed for an aviation program at UH Hilo.
“This is something that many people have been working on for over six years, and it’s great to see it come to fruition,” he said. “It’s going to provide opportunities for local kids to pursue highly skilled, high- quality, high-earning careers in the aerospace sciences.”
Students in the unmanned-aviation track, formally known as “commercial aerial information technology,” will be trained to get FAA licensing to operate small drones commercially as well as larger unmanned aircraft, once those are allowed in commercial airspace.
“We are in the very, very early stages of a huge revolution in what’s going on in aviation,” Hon said. “We want to train a generation of commercial operators of unmanned aircraft that can interact with other commercial pilots.”
The program is expected to start next fall, with enrollment projected at 80 students in the fourth year. It will need a subsidy of $107,000 to demonstrate feasibility in the first year, but revenues are expected to exceed costs soon thereafter.
Only one regent, Jeffrey Portnoy, opposed the proposal. He was outvoted 10-1, with one abstention and two excused.
“This was not even an idea in the minds of anyone at the University of Hawaii until political pressures were exerted to have the program and to have it (in)Hilo,” Portnoy said. “We are supposed to determine what programs we should offer and where. Nobody else.”
Other regents noted that the proposal had evolved and improved since it was first floated. Regents had pushed back against an earlier plan that involved bringing a flight provider under a single-source contract to rainy Hilo and having students learn to fly there.
Their concerns about risk, expense and weather were addressed in the new degree plan, and its appeal was broadened with the addition of the unmanned-aviation track.
Honolulu Community College had offered an associate’s degree in commercial aviation for more than a decade, but it was shut down in 2015 because not enough students were completing their degrees.
Patrick McNamee, president of the General Aviation Council of Hawaii, said he supports the new degree program but fears students who get their flight training on the mainland might not come back. He wants the flight training in Hawaii.
“I appreciate them putting together this program, but they need to complete the whole thing,” McNamee said.
Forman, former HCC program coordinator, urged UH to keep its “aviation assets,” including the hangar at Kalaeloa, in case they are needed as a satellite site as the UH Hilo program grows.
“We are running out of pilots here in Hawaii, and the private flight schools every year are less and less capable of training pilots here,” he said.
Kahele expects demand to be strong. He held a free community workshop on how to become a pilot at the Imiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo on Nov. 13 and was surprised at the turnout.
“We just put it out via word of mouth and social media, and I had 160 people show up,” he said. “The house was packed.”
“I’m really passionate about offering these opportunities to Hawaii’s local kids,” he added, “especially the ones that come from underserved and rural, lower-income communities.”
>> What: Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical sciences
>> Options: Commercial pilot or unmanned aircraft systems operator
>> Where: University of Hawaii at Hilo
>> When: Fall 2019
>> Costs: 30 to 50 percent below similar programs on the mainland
Source: University of Hawaii at Hilo