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Vermont Tech to partner with Vermont Flight Academy on innovative curriculum

March 31, 2011

By Luke Baynes
Observer correspondent

Andrew Verriotto (left) learns the art of flying from Vermont Flight Academy Assistant Chief Flight Instructor David Miller. (Observer photo by Luke Baynes)

Vermont Technical College and the Vermont Flight Academy are partnering to enable students to become licensed pilots while working toward a Bachelor of Science degree.

The four-year program, called “Aviation: Professional Pilot Technology,” would be the first of its kind in Vermont and will prepare students for a wide range of aviation careers, including flight instruction and commercial piloting.

The program was originally scheduled to begin in August but has been delayed while awaiting approval from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. Brent Sargent, Dean of Vermont Tech’s Williston campus, is optimistic that they will receive approval by January of 2012, but said that students interested in the aviation degree can enroll at the college as undeclared majors and receive retroactive credit for courses taken in the interim.

According to Sargent, the delay is due to ongoing negotiations with the NEASC, which requires that all courses still in development be completely finalized before the program receives accreditation. Financial aid is also an area of discussion, due to the variable rates of the flight section of the program, which fluctuate based on fuel costs and the number of hours it takes students to complete flight training.

“We want to ensure that students who enroll in the program have financial aid eligibility for the flight portion,” said Sargent, citing it as a major reason for the delay. “You have tuition and then you have flight fees that are separate, so our goal is to ensure that it’s all one program so that students will be financial aid eligible for both.”

Doug Smith, VFA’s Chief Flight Instructor and a Vermont resident, was a pilot for Delta Airlines for 29 years. He stressed the importance the major airlines place on a college degree. He said the program will offer graduating students employment as VFA flight instructors and address the concerns many graduates might have about seeking initial employment in an industry that has been ravaged over the past decade by financial woes and corporate downsizing.

“The students will get their flight instructor certificates in their third year and everyone will be offered a job instructing that wants one,” Smith said.

He added: “We are actually providing the training for seven FAA certificates and ratings in this four-year program, and that’s all the FAA licenses, frankly, that you ever need. So it’s not just that we’re giving them a college degree. We’re actually giving them a card-carrying employability.”

He also hopes that having an accredited aviation degree will encourage greater gender equality in what has traditionally been considered a male profession.

“There are far too few females in this profession, and we aim to change that, because they tend to be some of the better pilots I’ve ever trained,” Smith said.

The Vermont Flight Academy is a Federal Aviation Administration approved flight school under Part 141 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, meaning that the curriculum is subject to FAA approval and the school is subject to regular FAA surveillance audits. Part 141 schools, as opposed to less structured Part 61 schools, are considered the gold standard for preparing students for careers in commercial aviation.

Still, Smith explained, the typical career path for pilots rarely finds them employed by the major airlines as their first job out of flight school and more often involves time spent as an instructor, which is precisely the opportunity VFA will offer graduates.

“The usual first job is as a flight instructor. You’re teaching flying, but you’re still logging hours as the pilot in command. And that builds up your total flight time. Most airlines like to see people doing flight instruction,” he said.

According to Sargent, the program will initially be able to accommodate 10 to 12 students, but he hopes to increase that number to as many as 20 in future years and says that interest in the program is already strong.

“Without advertising or any kind of informational release we’ve had a lot of interest from young people who have wanted to be pilots their whole lives,” Sargent said.

Smith agreed that the ideal candidate is one who has always dreamed of spending his life in a cockpit.

“If you’ve got the passion, nothing’s going to stop you,” said Smith.

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