By Scott Spangler
If you are considering a professional aviation career, think seriously about the adjective that modifies aviation. "Professional," as defined by the dictionary, means "of, engaged in, or worthy of the high standards of, a profession; designating or of a school, especially a graduate school, offering instruction in a profession."
Further consider "professional" as a noun — "a person practicing a profession; a person who engages in some art, sport, etc. for money, especially for his livelihood, rather than as a hobby; a person who does something with great skill."
These definitions could have been written with aviation in mind because it definitely has high standards, and the people who meet these standards certainly must exhibit great skill. Aviation professionals are not born, they are educated. With professional aviation's increasingly complex and high-technology environment, being an aviation professional, today and in the future, requires more than just knowing how to fly.
Few of the major airlines require a college degree for employment, but in the past several years, more than 95 percent of the pilots hired have at least a four-year college degree. If you want an airline job, you stand a better chance if you are among the 95 percent with a degree than the 5 percent without one.
Aviation is an exciting career field, and because you can earn an above-average income, competition for jobs is keen. Traditionally, military pilots often place first in the employment contest. Civilian pilots consider this unfair, but look at it from the airlines' pragmatic point of view. Military pilots are college educated, which means they've proven themselves in an academic environment. Employers know they will do well in the challenging training environment that is an ongoing part of any professional's career.
Employers also know that military pilots have been trained to an exacting, accepted proficiency-based standard. And because of the military's structure, and the fact that many military aircraft have more than one crewmember, employers know that military pilots are "team players," that they understand and use cockpit resource management, which is essential in all phases of aviation.
The military isn't training as many pilots as it used to, but the competition hasn't eased. It's just shifted to civilian pilots. Nor has the airlines' hiring philosophy or needs changed. They hire the civilian trained pilots who offer the best chance for returning the carriers' investment. This is why more than 95 percent of the pilots hired have four-year degrees.
The airlines' preference for college-educated pilots is only natural because colleges and universities have tailored their academic and flight programs to meet the industry's specific needs. They understand that while good stick-and-rudder skills are important, it takes more then knowing how to fly to be an aviation professional.
Professional pilots today are "flight managers" who must intimately understand the workings of their computerized and fly-by-wire stick and rudder, and who must work with and depend on a crew of professionals that goes far beyond those in the cockpit.
These are the essential skills students learn and practice in today's collegiate aviation programs, but the value of a college education goes beyond these aviation-specific skills. Typically, your first two years of college will be devoted to "general education" classes. While they seemingly have no direct correlation with aviation, they do, and additionally, they'll make you a well-rounded individual.
Math, physics, and computer-science classes help you understand your career's technical aspects. English makes you a better oral and written communicator. Sociology and psychology give you a better understanding of human nature. History and the humanities give you insight and appreciation for man's development, achievements, and blunders. Economics makes clear the forces that will act upon your career.
When people think of aviation, they naturally think of pilots. But pilots are just one cog in the vast human machine that makes aviation work. If it were not for aeronautical and electrical engineers, airframe and powerplant (A&P) and avionics technicians, meteorologists, air traffic controllers, aviation managers at all levels, and a host of others, we wouldn't need pilots (and the others wouldn't be needed if there were no pilots). These are all viable, rewarding aviation careers, careers for which you can become educated at many colleges and universities.
Those aiming for the cockpit should never forget that a failed medical (or a failed airline) can terminate a flying career without notice. This is another reason pilots should know more than just how to fly. If you don't have a degree, your career options are limited. But if you've been educated as a manager, engineer, or technician, you have career alternatives that will enable you to survive professionally and, perhaps, maintain your aviation "connection."
College is one of the best places to make your aviation connection because it provides the education and contacts you'll need to succeed. Guidance counselors will help tailor your educational program to meet your career goals. They will explain what's needed when, and why, and they'll even help you refine your objectives and offer alternatives if, for some reason, you cannot attain the original goal.
This guidance continues throughout your educational career. As you near graduation, the school's job placement service will work with you to help you find that first aviation position (and many schools offer placement assistance to graduates throughout their professional careers).
Many schools also have cooperative agreements with different companies in which you go to school for a semester (usually 16 weeks) and work in your chosen career field for the next semester. Other schools have internship programs, where you work for a company, such as United Airlines, which has an internship program with more than 15 colleges.
During their senior year, United interns may be based at a domicile, flight operations headquarters at Chicago, or at United's Colorado training center. Interns are assigned management tasks based on an accepted curriculum. Interns don't do any flying, but they have access to United's simulators.
If interns are working toward a piloting career, United guarantees them an interview once they meet United's minimum requirements "because they are a known entity," says a United official. Accepting around 20 interns per semester year-round, United has hired almost 100 as second officers since the program began in the spring of 1986.
Yes, I hear your silent questions. "If I can't scrape up the money for flying lessons, how am I going to pay for college?" Honestly, paying for college isn't effortless, but it's easier than funding straight flight training. There's a wide variety of financial aid available that may cover all or part of your tuition for academic and flight classes, and the school's financial aid office can help you with all the details and applications.
One nice facet of education, regardless of its emphasis, is the options it offers. Not everyone can afford the time and/or money to attend some distant four-year university. But this shouldn't keep you from attending college. Many two-year community colleges offer outstanding aviation programs that will get you started.
Like four-year schools, community colleges may have an aviation department, or they may be dedicated almost entirely to aviation education. Two-year schools offer a panoply of financial aid and have flexible class schedules because most of their students work and attend school concurrently. And with some advance planning, the credit you earn is readily transferable to a four-year school.
Generally, when considering an aviation major, there's little difference between two- and four-year schools. A two-year associate's degree is essentially a distilled bachelor's degree program that focuses on the aviation major and doesn't require a "minor" area of study. An aviation associate's degree doesn't replace a four-year degree, but beginning your education at a community college has some benefits.
The classes are often small, which allows more personal attention from the professors, who have the same qualifications as their four-year college counterparts. This can be especially important in general education classes, which are the foundation for all succeeding learning. At four-year schools, these classes can be quite large (sometime several hundred students), and they are often taught by teaching assistants (graduate students).
Another benefit is that by the time you transfer to a four-year institution, you'll have the majority of your FAA pilot certificates and ratings, at least up through flight instructor. Depending on the transfer school, this will enable you to help offset college expenses by instructing, often in the school's flight department. And because of your flight experience, you may be ahead of your classmates, which may enable you (depending on many factors) to achieve advanced ratings and certificates, such as multi-engine, multi-engine instructor, and perhaps your airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate.
Cost is perhaps the biggest benefit of attending a community college. Tuition usually is well below that at a four-year school, and if your local community college offers an aviation program, you can live at home, which will further enhance its cost effectiveness.
Community college aviation programs vary, but most offer two-year associate degrees, which go by different names, for pilots, technicians, and managers. As the programs vary, so do their facilities, equipment, and training aids. But this is true at any school, community college or otherwise. However, if the school has made a commitment to aviation education, chances are the programs will be comprehensive and well equipped.
Aviation education's diversity is further expanded at four-year institutions. Most state-supported universities have aviation programs, and so do many private institutions. A number of the larger universities that are either dedicated to aviation education, such as Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, or those with dedicated aviation departments, such as the University of North Dakota's Center for Aerospace Sciences, are on the cutting edge of training and research.
"Today's students will be flying hypersonic aerospace planes at the turn of the century, and how we teach them to fly today must be different from the methods we used 10 years ago," says UND Aerospaces John Odegard. Part of that training will include flight physiology, which will take place in the school's hypobaric chamber. Putting college training in perspective, Odegard says, "We teach to what the requirements will be, not what they are, and we don't train pilots, we educate aerospace professionals."
In some cases, you need not be on campus to earn a degree from the large, dedicated aviation universities. Embry-Riddle's College of Continuing Education (CCE) has 94 learning centers and 39 teaching locations across the U.S. and Europe, says CCE Provost Dr. Leon Flancher. Many of these "mini campuses" are located on or near military installations, but anyone, military or civilian, may enroll.
CCE's classes are identical to those taught at Embry-Riddle's residential campuses at Daytona Beach, Florida, and Prescott, Arizona. And you can earn most of Embry-Riddle's undergraduate and graduate degrees through the CCE or through Independent Study programs. The only exceptions are those degrees, such as aeronautical engineering, computer science, and avionics technology, that require complex, comprehensive training facilities and equipment, such as wind tunnels or the airway science lab.
Many universities offer independent study programs through which you can earn or work toward a degree. "No matter where you are in the world, if you qualify, you can complete an aviation-oriented degree through independent study," says Tom Pettit, director of Embry-Riddle's department of independent study program, which is part of the school's College of Continuing Education.
Embry-Riddle is the only school in the nation that offers accredited aviation bachelor's and master of science degrees through independent study. The Professional Aeronautics degree program is designed for those currently employed in aviation specialties. Students may be awarded up to 36 credit hours for their prior aviation learning acquired through civilian and military training programs. Previously earned college credit may be applied toward earning an Embry-Riddle degree. Only those with civilian or military certification for an aviation specialty, such as pilots (commercial certificate or higher), A&P and avionics technicians, air traffic controllers, dispatchers, meteorologists, and others, may enroll in this program.
The only prerequisite for the independent study bachelor's of science degree in Aviation Business Management, says Pettit, is a high school diploma. When students apply for either degree program, they are assigned a counselor who works with them from acceptance until graduation. Each independent study course carries three hours of credit. Students have 15 weeks to complete the course requirement, which includes midterm and final exams that must be proctored by an approved individual (high school principal, military training officer, college professor, and others).
Students can enroll in their next course as soon as they complete the one on which they are currently working, even if it's before the 15-week limit. If students have questions, their professor is just a phone call, letter, or e-mail away. Although technical training, such as flight, maintenance, or avionics, isn't available through independent study, this program provides the serious aviation professionals an opportunity to achieve their higher education goals without interfering with employment commitments or family obligations.
Another educational option is attending either a flight school or a two- or four-year college that is affiliated with its opposite number. This affiliation is beneficial to both institutions and students, because it allows the organizations to coordinate their programs and work to their specific strengths, says Skip Everett, president of Sierra Academy of Aeronautics at Oakland, California, which has affiliations with several academic institutions.
Degree candidates learn to fly at Sierra and attend San Francisco's Golden Gate University, where they can earn a bachelor's of science degree in Aviation Operations and Management. As with many aviation degree programs, the Sierra/Golden Gate degree program enables students to apply the time and money spent in flight training for college credit. Additionally, students working as flight instructors can apply for internship credit while they work toward their ATP.
Some collegiate flight programs are designed so that students will have all prescribed flight training by graduation, but the Sierra/Golden Gate University program is structured so that students earn all ratings and certificates up through flight instructor during the first two years of college, Everett says. "This enables them to work as flight instructors during their last two years of college, which eases their economic crunch. It also means that they can earn their ATP by graduation."
Flight school, collegiate, and industry officials agree that for a person to succeed in aviation today, and in the future, he (or she) needs a college degree. The complexity of aviation technology is constantly evolving. Given the rate of change, what's new technology today will be obsolete in five or 10 years.
Using A&P technicians as an example, an Embry-Riddle official says, "20 years ago an A&P could earn his certificate either by attending a vocational school or by on-the-job training. About 10 years ago, aircraft systems and construction methods and materials became more complex, and an A&P really needed an associate's degree in order to be prepared for the position's challenges. Today, with advanced composites and computer integration, and the fact that many technicians are also managers, a bachelor's degree is even more important."
Citing Embry-Riddle's four-and-a-half-year Aviation Technology degree, Embry-Riddle says that being a maintenance professional involves more than just "turning wrenches." Embry-Riddle students not only earn an A&P certificate, they complete a core program and two of three options in avionics, flight, or maintenance. Along the way, they also take humanities, mathematics, and computer-science courses. This same philosophy applies in the bachelor aeronautical science program, where future professional pilots develop in-depth management, computer-science, and meteorological skills.
This educational "cross-training" really applies to anyone interested in any of the many aviation careers. Aviation is a synergistic endeavor that's constantly improving, evolving. To succeed, aviation professionals must learn about the individual parts that comprise the greater whole, just as they must continually learn and incorporate new information particular to their chosen "major" skill.
Aside from the basic skills one gains when earning a college degree, which lays the foundation on which all future learning will be based, the most important reason students should seek higher education is because they will "learn how to learn." And this is the prime ingredient for success in any endeavor, aviation or otherwise.
In many ways, selecting a college to attend is like buying a car — especially if you're making either choice for the first time. The number of choices is overwhelming. In the United States more than 230 two- and four-year colleges offer non-engineering aviation degrees. Many of them offer the same degrees, but no two are alike. Each of them offers a number of similar but variable options to their degree programs, and not all of them offer the same degrees, which makes the selection of the school that's "just right for you" all the more difficult.
Up front, understand that your chances of finding a school that meets all of your specific needs are slim. As with auto makers, colleges tailor their programs to meet the needs of the greatest number of people, so your goal is to find the schools that best meet your major needs and objectives. Working to this goal ensures that you'll find that many colleges will meet your educational needs.
Because your education plays such an important part in determining your future, the process of selecting a college or university should be meticulous, thorough, and pragmatic. Before you can find what you want, you must know exactly what you need. In other words, why, exactly, do you want to attend college, and what do you want to learn?
Checklists and methodical planning are a staple of aviation safety. These procedures work equally well for other tasks, such as selecting a college. So start by making a list of your top five reasons for going to college. "Because it's expected of me," isn't a good reason. "Because I'm enthralled with (pick a subject), and a I want to learn all I can about it," is a good reason.
Once you've listed your top five reasons, discuss them with your parents, friends, high school counselors (if you're still in school), and others. These discussions will help you focus your goals and likely provide a lot of other useful information.
Once you've outlined reasons for attending college that make sense to you, the next step is to get an idea of what you want to learn — and you have to be more specific than "aviation."
There's more to this industry called "aviation" than just flying airplanes. It's a synergistic aggregation of many disciplines: aeronautical engineering, aerospace medicine, air traffic control, airway design, aviation educators, aviation law, aviation safety, avionics, computer science, flight dispatch, human factors, maintenance, management, meteorology, sales, and many more, including flight — flying an airplane.
If you're unaware of these other facets of aviation, or you know little about them, they bear investigation. For what you learn about them may peak your imagination and open a whole new career opportunity. One of them may also dovetail nicely with another of your major interests.
You can learn about these other aviation disciplines at your local library. From there you might want to seek out people who work in these fields for additional information and guidance. Many of them are also represented by professional organizations, a number of which have education offices and offer scholarships and grants. You don't necessarily have to pick your major area of study based on this research, but defining your area of study is important because not all colleges and universities offer degree programs that cover the gamut of aviation careers.
Once you've narrowed your area of study to, say, the top three, consider your minor area of study. Aviation is a mercurial industry. Its periods of boom and bust are, in large part, determined by the U.S. and world economy, as are many other industries. Because you might not immediately achieve your aviation career goal, or because you may have to make a "detour" during your career, as many aviators must, you should have alternatives. You can increase your chances for this "alternative career" by selecting as your minor area of study.
Realistically, your minor can be in any field you choose. But it should be one that interests you because students do best when studying something that interests them. For that matter, there's no law stating that you must have an aviation degree to have an aviation career. If there's a particular field that really excites you, such as medicine, business, the law, or electrical engineering, major in it and minor in aviation.
The ultimate purpose of defining your major and minor areas of study is so you can find the schools that offer the programs you need. Some schools may be "perfect" for your major, and others may be "perfect" for your minor; they won't do you any good if they aren't located on the same campus, so look for the schools that will meet your "major" and "minor" educational needs.
Before you can start selecting schools that may meet your needs, you have one more critical evaluation to perform — on yourself. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What are your abilities, attitudes, and personality? What do you like and dislike? How you perceive your self-image plays an important part in the college selection process.
So does your current place in life. Students still in high school, or those who do not have to support a family, will likely consider attending a four-year college as full-time students. For whatever reason, those who must work full-time will likely consider a two-year school — a community or junior college — because the academic schedules at these institutions are more flexible and designed for both full-time day and part-time evening and weekend students. (The selection process for a two-year school is really no different than selecting a four-year school. But there are some additional considerations, which are addressed in the sidebar.)
Divide your self-evaluation into three categories: academic, extracurricular, and personal. Are you a good or average student, and do your grades reflect this perception? In what classes do you excel, and in which do you need some improvement? In which academic setting are you most comfortable, relaxed, or competitive? Are you involved in school or community activities, such as a flying club or the junior chamber of commerce? What are your hobbies, and how do you relax or relieve the stress of everyday life?
Aside from aviation, what really gets you excited and motivated to do something — just because you want to? Are you a loner or a people person? Do you work best as an independent or as a team member? Do you like familiar, set environments or routines, or do you get bored easily?
These are tough questions, and it's important that you be brutally honest with yourself because they play a large part in selecting a school. If you don't realize that you thrive in a relaxed academic setting and swim laps to relieve stress, you might select a school with a competitive academic environment and no swimming pool.
This may seem humorous and trivial, but consider how you'll feel after a semester or two. Remember, college is supposed to be a fulfilling educational and whole-life experience, not an endurance test. So work to your strengths, and seek schools that provide the environment in which you will thrive as a student and a person. If you want a challenging endurance test, enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Now that you've determined why you want to attend college, what your major and minor areas of study are, and what your personality traits are, it's time to start forming a list of schools that will meet your needs. The Flight Training "College Directory," published each year in the November issue, will get you started by providing the basic information on two- and four-year institutions offering aviation degree programs in your area.
To find the information you need on the programs the different schools offer, you'll have to visit your local library. Head to the reference section and dig into the fat volumes found there such as The College Handbook, published by The College Board, Lovejoy's College Guide, Barron's Profiles of American Colleges, and the two- and four-year college guides published by Peterson's.
These books include a succinct description of each institution. You'll read a lot of small type, but you will learn a lot about the school: whether it's public or private; two year or four; how many students attend, and how many and what type degrees were awarded; what academic programs it offers; and its major areas of study (which can also be minors).
The listing will tell if the school offers "advanced placement," or college credit for "testing out of" a particular subject required for graduation; what its academic requirements are; and its student selection criteria. It provides details of "student life," meaning extracurricular activities, housing, and medical and learning resource center services. And don't forget athletics programs, transfer requirements, and financial aid information.
As you read through the listings, make notes on the schools that meet your stated needs such as your major and minor area of study, size of the student body, and extracurricular activities. Don't forget other factors, which haven't been addressed but should not be ignored if they are important to you: location, religious affiliation, academic calendar, housing, social life, etc.
To make this process easier, you might want to create a "selection checklist." List all of your needs and requirements on the left side of a sheet of paper, and then make a bunch of photocopies. Using a separate checklist for each school, check off the requirements a school meets, and make some detailed notes on items of interest. When you finish this research, the checklists make refining your list of schools easy. Find the checklists that have the greatest number of positive checks next to your list of needs and requirements.
There's no denying that college is expensive, but don't rule out any institution because of its cost until you find out whether or not you're eligible for financial aid. There's a wide array of grants, loans, scholarships, and other aid available, and millions of student receive it each year.
The subject of financial aid is so vast that books have been written about it, and it would be a good idea to check several of them out from your local library. Generally, you don't have to be poor to get it. Financial aid, depending on the program, is based on what your and your family are able to pay. Other programs are based on financial need or scholastic ability.
The school's financial aid office is the best place to learn about the aid you might qualify for. And the best time to talk with the people there is during your campus visit (more on that in a bit). Leave no stone unturned in your conversations. In addition to the federal aid programs, make sure you ask about state and local student financial aid. If it's available in your state, it might make a difference in your decision.
In the end, don't be scared off by the cost of a college education. Yes, it's expensive. But remember this — it's an investment in your future. Because college graduates earn more than those without degrees, your initial investment will be repaid many times over. And unlike a car, you won't have to buy another college education in seven or eight years. So before you succumb to "tuition shock," talk to the helpful financial aid counselors.
Knowledge is the power you need to select the right college. Once you've refined your list of selections, write a letter to each and request a complete information package. Be specific about what you want, and don't be afraid to tell the school a little bit about yourself and your goals.
Whatever you do, make sure you, or someone else, proofreads this letter carefully for spelling and grammar. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and most, if not all, schools create a file on you when they receive such a letter. And you should create a file on each school you send a letter to. This enables you to keep track of your correspondence and store all the information from the school that will be forthcoming.
College catalogs take many forms, but they are the foundation on which all college literature is built. The catalog gives you most of the information you need about a school. To get the rest of the information, request current copies of college newspapers and student and alumni newsletters published by the department you're interested in.
The newspapers will tell you a lot about student life, current student issues, and campus and community events. The newsletters may tell of specific developments (or problems), such as a development drive that will bring new equipment or programs to the department, which could affect your decision. And they may provide additional information on student activities, such as the selection of flying team members for an upcoming National Intercollegiate Flying Association Safety and Flight Evaluation Conference (Safecon).
After reading the catalogs and other literature, you should be able to further refine your list of possible schools. If you have more questions, call the school's admissions department for answers. If possible, you should also schedule a campus visit to each of the schools on your "final list."
Try to visit during the school year because there's no better time to learn about a school. Walk around the campus to get an idea of its size. Visit classrooms, laboratories, student centers, dormitories, cafeteria, library, infirmary, and airport — all the facilities you'll be using. Note the distances between each of them. Can you walk or use public transportation, or will you need wheels?
Talk to the professors and students. If you're thinking about a flight degree program, talk to the chief flight instructor or head of the flight department. Find out such things as when you begin flight training and in what semester you begin training for the different certificates and ratings included in the degree program. And whether or not students who have earned their flight instructor certificates can help offset their college expenses by teaching other students to fly.
By all means, save some time for the admission counselor, for a first-hand explanation of the application and acceptance process, and the financial aid office, to see for what aid, grants, and loans you qualify. Take notes of everything you see and hear, and add them to your school files at home.
Once you have completed all your research and campus visits, apply to each of the schools that you feel meet your needs and requirements. Chances are there will be four or five of them. Application procedures vary from college to college, but this should be no problem if you visited with the admissions counselor during your campus visit. But if you do have a question or problem, call the school's admissions department. The personnel are there to help you.
Now comes the hard part — waiting for acceptance. There are so many variables involved in college acceptance that there's no way to predict here whether you'll be accepted. But that's why you applied to all the finalists on your list. If more than one school accepts you, you'll have to decide which one to attend. But considering the work you've already done, this decision shouldn't be too difficult.
The process of selecting a college that meets your needs and requirements is not an especially difficult process. It is, however, time consuming. But considering that you are setting the course for your future, it is time well spent.
If, for whatever reason, you must work full-time, a college degree is not out of your reach. Two-year institutions — community or junior colleges — are geared for students who cannot attend during the "regular school day." They offer night and evening classes, and many have first-rate aviation programs.
Many people agree that a two-year associate's degree is not the equal of a four-year bachelor's degree, but it's a start that can lead to a four-year degree if you plan ahead. When it comes to general education classes — math, English, and science — all schools, two-year or four, teach the same thing. The key is to earn credit for these and other classes that will transfer to a four-year institution — and count toward a bachelor's degree.
Most four-year schools accept transfer students and credits, but the best way to ensure that this transfer is possible, and that the majority of your community college credits make the trip with you, is to select your community college and four-year institution more or less at the same time.
This enables you to design an efficient community college program in concert with the four-year school you will eventually attend. This is by no means an easy task, but the effort is well worth it. All it really takes is getting the admission counselors at both schools to talk to each other, with you overseeing the process so that you'll know that you're creating the educational program you want.
You should have the respective counselors put the final plan on paper. Not that they will renege, but it will serve as a reminder of what is required of you and of what will and will not transfer when the time comes to attend your four-year school.
It's also a good idea to periodically double-check the specifics of your plan during your community college education. Transfer requirements and prerequisite classes do change. And while it's beyond the control of the respective counselors, it's up to you to update and correct your educational course.