UNK Flight Students Move Into Something Unusual in Aviation–a Steady Job

Randy Mertens
production, design and writer

Terry Gibbs, director of the busy Airway Science program at the UNK, is seeing something in aviation that he has never seen before in his 25 years of flying—a pilot shortage.

For almost all of its history, aviation has had more pilots than flying jobs, making the career choice one of furloughs, low salaries and long waits for newcomers to get a job.

Not recently, according to Gibbs. His UNK flight graduates, who leave the university with a bachelor of science degree, business and technology experience, and a fistful of pilot licenses, are moving directly into the co-pilot seats of regional airlines. Many are taking jobs in corporate aviation, transporting business executives in plush turboprop or jet aircraft.

Gibbs points to a Federal Aviation Administration forecast that says 120,000 airline pilots will be needed in the U.S. through 2017. Retirements and attrition will result in an expected pilot pool of about 90,000 in this period, a shortfall of about 30,000 flight crew members.

Historically, pilots trained in the military have populated civilian aviation cockpits. Tens of thousands of pilots after World War II transitioned from military to civilian flying. As late as the 1970s, as many as 5,000 military-trained pilots per year entered civilian jobs. With recent force reductions, the number of pilots leaving the military for other flying duties has shrunk to about 800 per year.

Gibbs said that industry data indicates that the greatest number of new job opportunities will come from the regional airlines and low-fare carriers, which are growing faster than the better known major airlines.

The Airway Science Program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney has been training commercial pilots for almost 25 years. About 30 students are enrolled in each class.

Most UNK aviation students come from Nebraska, Colorado and other adjoining midwestern states. About one-fourth are from overseas, Gibbs said, particularly from Asian countries where air transport is growing at a fast pace.

Gibbs said the UNK program is distinctive, because students can choose to specialize in either the business side of aviation or flying. Only about 20 of the approximately 65 university-affiliated flight training programs offer degree emphasis in aviation business, Gibbs said.

Students in the business emphasis area go on to be airport officials, flight department managers or airline operations specialists. The flight emphasis is designed to prepare the student for a career as a commercial pilot.

Flight Operations students initially earn a private pilot’s license, and then go on to take additional instrument, commercial, and multi-engine training with the option of becoming a flight instructor. When their four-year program is complete at UNK, about half of graduates typically step into a regional airliner cockpit as a first officer. The rest go into general aviation.

UNK students are in demand. Graduates who have gone into their first job with professionalism and experience have made UNK a brand name in what is still a small industry, Gibbs said. Regional airlines routinely visit campus to talk to students before graduation.

UNK flight training is conducted with seven leased airplanes at the Kearney Municipal Airport.