Expanding the Community

A Kansas-based community college is expanding across state lines to help fill a shortage in helicopter and commercial airplane pilots.

October 4, 2016
Dodge City Community College’s helicopter program

In Dodge City, Kans., one community college is redefining just where the borders of its community lie.

The college hosts a helicopter pilot training program not only in Kansas, but at two locations in Arizona and one in Utah, and it is expanding to include a fifth in California.

“We’re the only school in the state of Kansas that has other locations outside of the state, as far as I know, and we’re probably one of the few schools in the country that have them outside of their area,” said Harold Nolte, president of Dodge City Community College. “Our job as a community college is to recruit, retain, educate and graduate, but we also need to think outside of the box.”

Officials at Dodge City were thinking outside of the box in 2007, when they decided to partner with Universal Helicopter. The company offers flight instruction and pilot training in Arizona, Kansas, Texas and Utah. As a result of the partnership, students enrolled in the aviation training program can earn an associate of applied science degree through Dodge City and then seek certification with the Federal Aviation Administration. In 2011 the partnership spread to the Prescott, Ariz., location, arriving in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2012 and Provo, Utah, in 2013.

By the beginning of next year, a new location in Camarillo, Calif., will open as well. (Universal Helicopters also has a partnership with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for students who want to pursue a degree.)

Taking a two-year public college’s program across state lines hasn’t been easy, said Anthony Lyons, vice president of aerospace programs, community and industry relations at Dodge City. Most of the challenge has been bureaucratic, Lyons said, and related to complying with regulations from the college’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, the Kansas Board of Regents, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Education Department.

“Each course is designed the same, so the general education courses are all online and we do some face-to-face general education courses in Scottsdale,” Lyons said. “There’s no out-of-state tuition. They all pay the same and they’re counted as our students.”

While the current out-of-state locations are called Dodge City Community College, the location in California will be slightly different. Because the state doesn’t want Californians to confuse the soon-to-open Dodge City location with a member of California community college system, the location will be named Dodge City College in California, Lyons said.

The field, while lucrative, can be expensive for students. One certification in helicopter flight training can cost more than $20,000. There are five certifications pilots are expected to achieve, which can bring the total training price to about $150,000.

Roughly 80 percent of students in the helicopter program are veterans, who can use Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for the training. Dodge City has about 1,800 total students, of which about 150 are flight students.

“Regardless of whether they graduate either Embry-Riddle or Dodge City, we hire all the graduates who desire employment with us as a certified flight instructor,” Lyons said. Without 1,000 hours in an aircraft, a helicopter pilot can’t get a job, he said. And even once they complete the five certifications, they still have about 300 hours of training left to complete.

The graduates then work as instructors and earn anywhere from $20 to $30 an hour until they complete their 1,000 hours.

“We encourage them to stay with us and make a career out of flight instruction or we place them in the industry,” Lyons said. “Universal Helicopter and Dodge City have such a great reputation, employers come to us when they’re looking for pilots. We have the best safety record and no unemployed graduates. For the last eight years, we have a 100 percent [job] placement rate.”

Most students find careers at Petroleum Helicopters International, a company that provides service for the oil and gas industry, as well as medical evacuation operations across the country. Tour companies in Alaska, Arizona, California and Nevada regularly tap the college for graduates.

“We’ve got a young man flying this summer in Nepal, and he’s providing medevac operation supporting mountain climbing expeditions and he’s just a farm boy from WaKeeney, Kans.,” Lyons said.

A pilot working with Petroleum Helicopters can expect to earn about $61,000 a year flying two weeks a month, which is the maximum amount of time they’re allowed to pilot for the company. But if they choose to get a second pilot job, they can double their income for the other two weeks, he said.

However, there’s a pilot shortage in the country, which is part of the reason Dodge City is expanding to include a commercial airplane pilot program in January. A study by the University of North Dakota’s aviation department found that the deficit in pilots will grow to 15,000 by 2026.

“There’s a critical shortage in airplane pilots,” Lyons said. “When you experience delays and cancellations at the airport, it’s often due to the lack of available crews to fly the airplanes.”

Besides expanding to a commercial airplane pilot program, Lyons said, the college has plans to develop an airplane mechanics program to address a critical need in that area as well.

“There’s a shortage in helicopter as well as fixed-wing pilots, and these are programs that will help us grow and help us get students jobs as well,” Nolte said. “We have 100 percent rate as far as getting students jobs after they graduate, and it’s something just a little different than what everybody else is doing.”


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