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July 22, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois has voted to close a noted aviation program that has been turning out pilots for the airlines, industry, and government since 1946.
The trustees voted 6-2 on July 21 to shut down the university’s Institute of Aviation at the conclusion of the 2013-2014 academic year. Trustees said other cost-cutting measures would also be forthcoming, according to a newspaper account.
Some faculty members criticized the decision that ran counter to a 57-54 faculty Senate vote in May not to endorse a committee recommendation to close the program.
Addressing the board of trustees before the vote, University Vice President and Chancellor Robert Easter said he hoped that the decision would not end the flight-training opportunities offered by the Institute.
“Notwithstanding this proposal to discontinue the degree programs and to close the Institute, the campus is actively investigating ways to keep flight training opportunities available for its students,” he said. “Specifically, the campus is engaged in ongoing conversations with other institutions of higher education regarding how to support their possible interest in creating local flight training programs.”
Although the institute “graduates successful students,” it has “had a pattern of declining applications and admissions over the past ten years,” he said in his remarks, also estimating that a savings of $500,000 to $750,000 a year would result from the closing.
Chief Pilot Sybil Phillips has worked with the program since 1986 and has led its flight training since 2003. There were 160 students enrolled in program courses for the spring semester, she said.
Phillips, who has taught every flight and ground-school program the institute offered, estimates that she has given 5,000 hours of dual instruction to its students. She said that the first indication that the program had fallen out of favor came five years ago when the program’s director left the post, but no search was initiated for a permanent replacement.
She believes that persistent rumors of the program closing may have contributed to the declining enrollment cited by Easter.
“It tends to make people shy away,” she said.
Institute of Aviation Interim Director Tom W. Emanuel also expressed the hope that the institute might re-emerge, possibly in partnership with a community college as a “bridge program” that would offer credits at both academic levels.
He was skeptical of university statements that the decision to close the program was driven by cost-cutting, noting that the program was “the smallest unit” on the Urbana-Champaign campus.
“We’re still fighting. We’re not giving up on this,” said Emanuel, noting that program graduates work for airlines, the FAA, and corporations such as Mitre and Boeing, where they use their human-factors education and aviation knowledge to design cockpits.
Phillips said that the institute’s training fleet currently consists of 18 Piper Archers, seven complex Piper Arrows (one with a glass cockpit), three twin Seminoles, “and two Cessna 152s that we use for spin training.”
Her office wall is adorned with an artifact that testifies to the program’s place in aviation history: a certificate from the Civil Aeronautics Authority--forerunner of the FAA--conferring airman pilot examining agency No. 1 status on the institute, dated May 29, 1950.
Before taking effect, the trustees’ vote to close the program must be reviewed by the Illinois Board of Higher Education, the faculty members said.
Supporters of the program established a website dedicated to keeping it afloat.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor.
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