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Hometown U: 727 landing puts spotlight on UAA aviation program

Kathleen McCoy
Erin Hooley

When that big FedEx Boeing 727 made the short trip from Ted Stevens International Airport to tiny Merrill Field on Tuesday, a senior airport engineer had to certify in advance that the tarmac could indeed take a 727 -- as long as the ground was frozen.

Never to fly again, the jet will live out its senior years as a training tool for UAA aviation maintenance students at the school perched on the airfield's edge.

The event captured the city's attention, and drew unusual visibility to the aviation technology program, how much it costs, and how its graduates fare in the tough and troubled modern aviation industry.

I met director Rocky Capozzi the day after the big event. Relief was written across his face. Like any good pilot, he'd worried Alaska's weather would force tedious delays. It didn't.

But more key than cooperative weather were the local industry players who stepped up to solve any problems this transfer presented. FedEx's Nick Yale and John Parrott from Anchorage's main airport provided all kinds of gear and personnel that Merrill doesn't have, Capozzi said. Northern Air Cargo's borrowed tug was still on campus, waiting to move the big jet to a final spot for its maintenance classes next fall.

Capozzi, 60, is a retired Air Force fighter pilot who also worked for the Federal Aviation Administration before taking on the aviation school. The curriculum he and 11 faculty oversee offers four core tracks: professional piloting, aircraft maintenance, air traffic control and aviation management for running airlines and airports. Just fewer than 450 students are enrolled, with the option of earning maintenance certifications, or associate or bachelor of science degrees in aviation technology.

The U.S. has about 120 aviation maintenance technology schools. UAA's original facility was built at Merrill in 1981; a federal grant from the now-defunct federal Airways Sciences Grant Program in the mid-1990s (thank you, Sen. Ted Stevens) resulted in an expansion to house all four aviation tracks in one spot.

UAA draws students from around the country, Capozzi said, because the school is one of only a few offering simulated control tower and radar approach labs for students.

Capozzi answers a lot of aviation career questions. One of the most asked is "How do I become a pilot?" He's very clear: If you only want to tool around Alaska for fun on weekends, head to a private flight school. But if you aspire to work professionally for a major carrier, you'll need a four-year college degree to compete successfully. Even certified aviation mechanics moving into management need that degree.

The most expensive degree track is piloting, with tuition and flight costs topping $67,000 for private, instrument, commercial, single- and multi-engine certifications.

Aviation management is the least expensive because it's taught in traditional classroom settings, ranging between $10,000 to $20,000 for associate's to bachelor's degrees.

Air traffic control makes use of high tech labs and runs from $13,000 to $24,000 for associate's to bachelor's degrees. In maintenance, the complete airframe and powerplant certifications are nearly $16,000, and an associate's degree tops out at just more than $18,000.

How about jobs for graduates? Because of deregulation and fierce competition, the industry remains highly volatile. Mergers and recent congressionally mandated FAA rules (for example, steeply increasing pilot qualifying hours) constantly add new wrinkles to the employment picture.

Paul Herrick heads up the aviation maintenance track, which took possession of the 727. He says he has 100 percent placement for all aviation maintenance graduates -- "They're all over the state and in high demand." He's both proud and frustrated when Wilfred Ryan of Ryan Air calls UAA's aviation maintenance program the best kept secret in Alaska.

Opportunities in other tracks, like piloting and air traffic control, can be cyclical. Five years ago, fearing a pilot shortage, the FAA pushed mandatory retirement to 65.

"But even without that," Capozzi says, "many pilots had to keep working anyway because the national economic downturn had cost them their pensions."

The end of that extension would seem to bode well for new pilot graduates. But the FAA also raised total pilot qualifying hours from 250 to 1,500, effective this summer, "with no clear path how to get there," Capozzi said. Now major and national airlines are busy stealing time-qualified pilots from regional airlines, leaving regionals shorthanded until a fresh cohort of pilots has logged their 1,500 hours.

Still, it's not all bad news for pilots. The FAA's new rules also increased rest times between flights, which requires more crews overall and increases pilot demand.

At one point, air traffic control jobs were a shoe-in for UAA grads. This school is one of only 30 nationwide whose graduates get an automatic recommendation to the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. But that pool of potential controllers also has grown, and depending on retirement cycles, new grads can still struggle to secure one of those jobs. Capozzi recommends that students add a management degree to broaden their job opportunities.

But the romance of flight endures. Alaska-born Amanda Zharoff, 24, graduated as a pilot in 2011 and is busy racking up her 1,500 flight hours with Hageland Aviation -- all in pursuit of her dream job, piloting a FedEx MD-11.

Kathleen McCoy is an electronic media specialist at UAA, where she highlights campus life through social and online media.

Kathleen McCoy
Hometown U