AD Main Menu

Rural Alaska flight school closes, future up in the air

Colleen Mondor
The Yuut Yaqungviat flight school, located in Bethel, Alaska has helped dozens of Alaskans attain their pilot's license.

Myron Naneng, Sr., president of the Association of Village Council Presidents, announced last week that Bethel’s flight school, Yuut Yaqungviat,  was temporarily closing. For years, the school has helped rural Alaskans follow a dream of piloting aircraft for air carriers in Alaska and elsewhere.

Initially established in 1999, Yuut Yaqungviat obtained nonprofit status in 2004 and then became certified under the Federal Aviation Administration as a Part 141 school. This status, heavily regulated by the FAA, allowed the school’s students to test for their commercial licenses at 190 hours instead of the typical 250, making it a far more attainable goal. It also paved the way for approval from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs allowing students to use the G.I. Bill to finance their training. Unfortunately, the school is now facing some funding shortfalls and has chosen to close early this season while the organization pursues greater financial stability.

“To become a commercial pilot by the time you’re 22 in college, you’d need school loans in the neighborhood of $100,000,” explained Chief Pilot Mike Lucas earlier this year. Financial aid is critical for the school’s students but according to Naneng, cuts in the federal budget and “diminished funding of scholarships from the Coastal Villages Regional Fund” have hit the school hard. The shutdown, however, will not be permanent, according to Lucas, and he is actively working on improving the school’s situation.

“We always shut down for a couple of months in the winter,” he explained, “basically due to flight safety during the December and January weather.” The school closed early this year, after graduating two commercial students last month, but Lucas stressed that the administrative work continues.

“We’ve been in the accreditation process from the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC) since June 2012 and are now in the second part,” Lucas said. ACCSC is a nationally recognized organization that provides accreditation to schools offering non-degree programs and makes them eligible to offer federal financial aid to students.

“After we submit the next round of paperwork we’ll move on to a site inspection next year," he said. "The whole process takes a couple of years but should help the school and students a lot in the future.”

Yuut Yaqungviat’s commercial certificate graduates -- 27 of them to date -- have enjoyed a unique hiring relationship with Era Alaska. They were guaranteed an opportunity to attend Era’s ground school and upon successful completion of the program were offered positions that allowed them to build flight time and gain experience as they sat in the co-pilot seat in Era Caravans. Eventually, after obtaining the necessary time, they could move into the Era pilot roster and fly Cessna 207s.

“They can be at home, still hunt and fish, live the subsistence lifestyle and fly for us,” explained Jason Wilson, Era’s Bush operations chief pilot, last June.

“Our graduates are working and earning a wage immediately,” said Lucas. “This is a good thing for the community and the companies that hire them.” It’s why Yuut Yaqungviat has been so important to the region so far and why residents are looking forward to its return.

In the meantime, Bethel’s youth can still pursue their aviation interests through the FAA’s ACE Academy program now offered by the Lower Kuskokwim School District (LKSD). Open to students between grades 7-12 and with two dozen local participants currently enrolled, this aviation-intensive program is right at home in the area. It is another step on the community’s path to encouraging interest in the aviation industry and providing a path to longterm employment for youth of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Until Yuut Yaqungviat opens its doors again, the LKSD program will be a visible example of just how much the industry has to offer Bethel, and how interested the young people are in learning more.

Mike Lucas will be interviewed on the "Hangar Flying" segment of the "Aviation Weather" program on KAKM, television channel 7 in Anchorage, on Nov. 11 and 15 between 5:30 and 6:00 p.m.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com