More than just a flight school, the UD aviation program gives students all the tools they need to take off in an industry that is experiencing shortages.
Ever since Mya Wesling was in grade school, she’s been fascinated by airplanes. When she had any opportunity to fly, she’d always race to the window seat so she could watch the takeoff and landing while admiring the view.
“If I ended up in the aisle seat, I’d somehow always manage to start talking to the flight attendants about their work experience and how they ended up as a flight attendant,” says Wesling, now a sophomore flight operations and aviation management double major at the University of Dubuque (UD) in Dubuque, Iowa. “Any opportunity I had to talk to a pilot, I was intrigued by their career and flight stories. The closer I got to college, the more interested I became, and I knew that flying was what I wanted to do as a profession.”
That’s why Wesling got involved with the Department of Aviation at UD. The program has continued to increase enrollment with roughly 330 students currently in the program, and an additional 80 to 100 students joining the program in the fall. About eight professors, along with several adjunct professors, teach classes. There are also about 50 flight instructors for airplanes and helicopters who also oversee day-to-day operations, aviation safety and maintenance.
The increase in students plays a key role in helping alleviate the national pilot shortage, making the program more important than ever, says Randy Warm, director of aviation programs.
“All of the universities put together can only fill about half of what the airlines are going to need over the next five years, so we’re trying to do our part,” he says. “It’s a great time to get in the airline business and the pay is outstanding. You can also see the country and the world.”
The program takes place adjacent to the Dubuque Regional Airport at the University’s Babka Aviation Learning Center, about 15 minutes south of the UD campus.
The facility houses a dispatch desk, three classrooms, multiple offices including an area for flight instructors, four flight simulators, flight review rooms, an unmanned aircraft system lab, a visitor lounge and conference spaces.
“There’s no aptitude test to get in the program,” Warm says. “Most students end up completing the program.”
In addition to flight operations, students can also participate in aviation management. Those students train to manage airports, airlines and small airports, and oversee day-to-day operations.
“Most of our graduates end up at a regional airline first,” Warm says. “Some of them go to corporate organizations, but most of them end up at an airline or a small airport.”
Students can also enroll in the applied aviation technology program, which is the study of aerospace technology and advanced air mobility.
“This is really a drone program, so you can learn about drones,” Warm says. “There are rules for everything that leaves the ground, so you have to know the rules of airspace, so they learn that, and they can also build drones.”
Warm says it’s not yet a popular major because it’s still relatively new to many people and the rules are unfamiliar.
“Most people just buy a drone and fly it,” he says. “If you get caught flying in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can get in trouble with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).”
The flight operations major and minor prepare students for FAA certification licensing and ratings.
“We encourage our flight operation students to get an aviation minor, a drone minor, or even do a double major in flight operations and aviation management,” Warm says. “All pilots have to pass a flight physical, but as they age, sometimes their bodies can’t pass the physical, so we encourage them to get another major or minor, so they have something to fall back on.”
Students who finish the program also need to have at least 1,500 hours of flight time to be a commercial pilot and hired by an airline. By coming to the program at UD, the flight time drops to 1,000 hours of required flight time because of the knowledge they gain while they’re in the classroom.
Gaining those hours is very important, but it’s also a big commitment, says Polly Kadolph, an associate professor of aviation at UD.
“It’s not like after four years, you walk across the stage and you go into a 767 for American Airlines,” says Kadolph, a licensed professional pilot and a graduate of UD. “It’s almost like doing a residency or an internship. Students must believe in their work ethic and their tenacity.”
Students graduate from the program with a Bachelor of Science degree, and they also earn an aviation certificate at the same time.
Wesling says she has a goal of becoming a flight instructor.
“After getting my flight hours, I’m leaning into the direction of an airline job,” she says. “I’m also majoring in aviation management, so I know that no matter what, I’ll be working in the aviation industry.”
In addition to teaching, the college also helps students stay in front of job seekers by helping them network with potential employers.
“The program has not only taught me how to fly, but also how to dress and act professionally,” Wesling says. “They’re constantly hosting events to get us connected with the airlines or other job opportunities. UD has a very positive environment that helps students succeed.”
Warm says the door continues to stay wide open for anyone interested in aviation, so long as they have an aptitude to fly and they can prove they can be a good, safe pilot.
There are currently 8% females and 92% males in the UD program, which is on par with the national average, Kadolph says.
“We put a lot of effort and energy into trying to be inclusive in our recruiting efforts,” Kadolph says. “I’d love to have a few more females in the programs.”
Being a female doesn’t stop Wesling from fulfilling a dream she’s had since she was a little girl.
“Being in a program that is predominately male has its occasional challenges, but UD has provided an environment where I have rarely felt out of place due to my gender,” Wesling says. “It can be discouraging to think that people see my capabilities as a pilot as less than a male, but that doesn’t tear me away from my passion for flying.”
Kadolph says students who come through the aviation program will be prepared for their next steps in their journey because the teachers and instructors pride themselves on preparing and educating students.
“Quality is where we can hold our pride, our honor and our integrity, and that’s important to our faculty and staff,” she says. “The people we’re training now will be flying your grandkids, so we want to make sure we do things right. There’s never a moment where we aren’t aware of the responsibility that we have.”