Aviation program at UH-Hilo awaits clearance

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A long-awaited four-year aviation program could take off this year at University of Hawaii at Hilo.

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A long-awaited four-year aviation program could take off this year at University of Hawaii at Hilo.

The UH Board of Regents’ Committee on Academic and Student Affairs is set to vote today whether to add the program for the fall semester. If approved, the proposal would go to a full board vote and ultimately be implemented under “provisional status.”

Programs with provisional status can accept students and offer classes, said Matthew Platz, vice chancellor for academic affairs at UH-Hilo. If successful, they’re continued on a permanent basis.

UH-Hilo has considered adding an aviation program for years but the idea has never come into fruition. Doing so would be complicated and costly, Platz said, and historically has had “many skeptics who ask very good questions.”

“It took us some time to do some due diligence to create a proposal that answered all of those good questions,” he said.

Last year, the late state Sen. Gil Kahele, D-Hilo, sponsored a bill that would have appropriated funding to help the aviation program get started.

That bill didn’t pass but campus officials continued vetting the topic. The program as currently proposed initially would be funded with reserve money. Eventually, it would be sustained using tuition revenue.

The campus estimates 20 resident students will enter the program each year. Those students would graduate with a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical sciences and immediately be eligible for a range of jobs, including military pilot, bush pilot and flight instructor.

State Sen. Kai Kahele, son of Gil Kahele and a commercial pilot for Hawaiian Airlines, called an aviation program a potential “game changer for East Hawaii and the economy.” Kahele said he envisions it being the first of many at the Hilo campus in aviation, aerospace and astronomy fields.

It would be the first four-year collegiate aviation program in the state, Kahele said, and many employers prefer commercial pilots to have four-year degrees.

Honolulu Community College offered a two-year commercial aviation degree until last year.

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“This is a really big deal,” Kahele said. “Most students in Hawaii who want to be a commercial airline pilot go to the mainland to go to a four-year institution. We’re trying to give them an option to do that in Hawaii. I firmly believe this program has the potential to be one of the biggest at the UH-Hilo.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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