Ready for takeoff: UH-Hilo prepares aeronautical science program

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald From left, PhD candidate Roberto Rodriguez, Associate Professor of Geography Dr. Ryan Perroy, undergraduate student Crystal Baysa and graduate student Eszter Collier uncover the propellers and put batteries into a DJI Matrice 600 drone Wednesday at University of Hawaii at Hilo. The Matrice 600 was purchased with grant money from the National Science Foundation Division of Earth Sciences.

After years of effort, a four-year aeronautical science program will finally take flight at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

The provisional bachelor of science degree was approved by the UH Board of Regents last month and has two concentrations — one in commercial professional pilot training, and another in commercial aerial information technology.

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UH-Hilo has considered adding an aviation program for years but the idea has never come to fruition.

Efforts began in 2012, but it was hard to attract a qualified flight providers, said Ken Hon, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs.

Some attempts to secure state funding for such a program failed in the intervening years, and in early 2017, the Board of Regents Committee on Academic and Student Affairs postponed a decision on creating an aviation program.

Since then, Hon said “we’ve reworked the proposal a lot,” and the school has collaborated with state Sen. Kai Kahele, a commercial pilot himself, and other pilots, to look at a different training model.

For the commercial pilot track, Hon said they “came up with this idea of doing the preparation, so in three years, you do the class work and simulator work (on campus) and in the last year go to a bigger, established provider” for the flight school.

In documents submitted to the Board of Regents, the university said the commercial pilot track will provide students a direct pathway to earn all required Federal Aviation Administration licenses and certificates required to pursue a commercial pilot’s license — and therefore a career as a commercial airline pilot.

The second concentration will focus on work with unmanned aviation systems, or drones.

“You don’t have to be really great with a crystal ball to look out and see what the future is going to be with these unmanned aircraft, because the military is already there,” he said.

In the future, Hon said drones could be integrated into commercial aviation airspace, and the university is looking to train students in both concentrations so that they have the “same knowledge of how to operate within commercial airspace and how to get your aircraft integrated into commercial airspace in a safe manner.”

And in order to “really maximize the job capability,” the university wants to train the aerial information technology students to really understand what drones can be used for, the type of sensors attached, and what kind of data they can collect and process, he said.

That data collection and processing will allow for “a much higher level of jobs than being a drone pilot.”

Kahele, a Hilo Democrat, said the program is a “huge opportunity” for local students to pursue careers as pilots and in emerging markets like unmanned aircrafts.

Over the course of the next 15 years, there will be a shortage of 600,000 pilots worldwide, he said.

“No question you’re going to be offering high quality STEM degrees in a career field that is in high demand and in occupations that pay high earning wages,” said Kahele. “You can’t get any better than that.”

Kahele said organizers had to go back to the drawing board at least three times to determine the type of program that would be economically feasible for the university and prospective students, as well as what was realistic to ensure the highest levels of success.

“This program, I truly believe will be one of the next great things that we do at the University of Hawaii at Hilo,” he said. “We’ve had some signature programs that have been created in the past, such as the (Daniel K. Inouye) College of Pharmacy, and this aviation program I really believe will be like one of those programs.”

His father, the late Sen. Gil Kahele, was an early champion for an aviation program at the university.

Two days before his death, Kai Kahele said his father signed three bills he wanted to introduce in the 2016 legislative session, one of which supported the effort.

“To see this come to fruition is very personal for me and very personal to our family, and I know he would be beaming down as he sees the program come alive,” Kahele said. “It’s literally one of the last things he wanted done for East Hawaii and our Hilo community, and he knew how important the university was to our island and what a program like this could do and mean not just for the university, but for our island community.”

Hon said more staff is required for the budding program, which will need about 3.5 positions.

“The good thing is we can roll this out over several years,” Hon explained. The first year of the program is “mostly general education classes we already offer,” the exception being a one-hour flight simulator class each semester, which means the university will only need an instructor to teach that flight simulation and equipment in the first year.

“We’re really excited about (offering the degree) because it really integrates well with the other natural science and social science programs we have,” Hon said. The unmanned aircraft component in particular “gives students another track to develop specialties they may not be able to get anywhere else. We really want to see our students with successful careers and it gives them another way to pursue those careers.”

According to information presented to the Board of Regents, applied aeronautical sciences programs are not currently offered in the state.

It is estimated that 20 students will enroll in the pilot training track and 10 in the aerial information technology track each academic year starting in the fall of 2020.

The estimated four-year costs for the commercial pilot training concentration at UH-Hilo are also projected to be significantly less compared to similar programs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Arizona State University and Central Washington University, according to the presented information.

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According to the university, UH-Hilo launched last year a certificate program in unmanned aircraft systems, or drone technology as a first step toward the aeronautical sciences program.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.