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Aviation careers cleared for take-off at 'pilot's campus' on Merrill Field (+VIDEO)

Laurel Andrews
Laurel Andrews photo

If a passion for flying is at the heart of the aviation trade, then the University of Alaska Anchorage is committed to manning the hangars, airfields and major airports of Alaska and the U.S. with the best and brightest students of manned flight. Two of the university's Aviation Technology division administrators, director Rocky Capozzi and academic advisor Carolyn Sanborn, recently sat down with Bush Pilot at the department's state-of-the-art facilities, located near the Airport Heights entrance to Merrill Field in Anchorage, Alaska, to discuss the ins and outs of aviation studies.

How do you pursue a degree with UAA Aviation Technology, one of the nation's top-ranked aviation programs? It's a rigorous academic path to take, with some potential pitfalls and high demands, according to Sanborn. But for those who love aviation, it's a path that can offer real benefits. 

And while Professional Piloting is one of four paths available, Capozzi emphasizes that Aviation Technology students don’t just come to school to learn to fly. They are “college student first,” and pilot studies are just part of the package, he says.

Here’s the low-down.

What to expect

UAA’s Aviation Technology department has four programs

  • Air Traffic Control 
  • Professional Piloting 
  • Aviation Maintenance 
  • Aviation Administration

Each path offers certificates, Associates degrees, and Bachelors of Science opportunities, Sanborn said. Students generally choose a degree or certificate path during their second semester, after getting their feet wet.

Students who pursue Professional Piloting essentially double their course work, because flights are treated in the same way as a lab, requiring a large chunk of time. But for aspiring pilots, it’s worth it, Sanborn says, as spending time in the skies can be a lot more fun than burying your head in a book.

The Maintenance program is centered around airplane mechanics. Many students who want to pursue an engineering degree will gravitate toward this program. It is strictly regulated by the FAA, with non-negotiable attendance requirements; a no-brainer, perhaps, as the FAA wants its mechanics to be well prepared to repair the nation’s airplanes.

The Air Traffic controlling program is perhaps UAA’s most notable aviation program, ranked third out of 31 College Training Initiative Air Traffic Control schools by the FAA. Its state-of-the-art air traffic control simulator, with a 360-degree interface, is one of only a handful in the world.

The Aviation Administration program is their most popular program, a management path that offers students a chance to learn laws and regulations, business management and issues surrounding aviation safety.

The benefits

While there are around 200 colleges and university that have aviation programs, UAA is one of only a handful that offers all four programs within the aviation field. Sanborn says that it is "one of the top recognized aviation schools in the nation."

Students who go through UAA’s Piloting program leave “with a far broader knowledge” beyond what the FAA requires pilots who receive only a pilot’s certificate, Capozzi says.

The program that stands out the most to Capozzi is the Air Traffic Control program, which has some “very high end” air traffic control simulators, and a 99 percent success rate for FAA Academy completion.

Another benefit of the Air Traffic Controller program is that they are one of 36 College Initiative Training (CTI) Schools, the method which the FAA uses to hire its air traffic controllers. “Your odds of being hired are much better” when going through a CTI program, Capozzi says. And with UAA ranking in third place of all these CTI schools, the chances of landing a job are greatly increased.

Sanborn also says that the Maintenance program is "nationally recognized", while the Administration program is taught by faculty who have real-world management experience in the aviation field.

The hurdles

Like most college degrees – it is expensive. Sanborn says that lack of financial planning is what hinders students the most frequently. Regardless of which degree students are completing, she advises students to talk to UAA Financial Aide and plan accordingly in order to have the funding to complete their degree.

The other most frequent issue that Sanborn see is lack of high school preparation. The programs require a solid grasp of English and math, and some students fall by the wayside if their high school hasn’t adequately prepared them.

Capozzi stresses that high-school students should “keep taking science and math and English courses until you graduate,” in order to be well prepared for the college experience.

The programs are tough, and students who aren't dedicated to their studies may not complete their degrees. 

Who enrolls?

Between all four programs and all degree levels, 400-500 students are enrolled at any given time, and they come from all walks of life. It's a "varied mix" of students just starting out in their careers, and some in the midst of a career change, which fluctuates every year, Sanborn says.

The Aviation Maintenance program in particular is known for attracting retired professionals who own planes and are looking to fix up their rides themselves.  

Sanborn also notes that in recent years, veterans receiving funding with the post 9/11 GI Bill have started enrolling in higher numbers, too.

Where do graduates end up?

There’s a “broad spectrum” of careers people land within the aviation industry, Sanborn says. Folks who become pilots can end up with regional or national carriers, or companies like Fed-Ex. Administration students can end up working in a wide range of places, from the FAA to local companies, or in any number of regional or national agencies. Maintenance students likewise end up with a variety of job opportunities, at local or regional airlines, while some find jobs outside of the aviation field – such as with the Otis elevator company, Sanborn says. Air Traffic Controllers head airports across the country, as the FAA is the only employer of Air Traffic Controllers in the country.

How to get started

Request an information packet; Sanborn will send interested folks an email with detailed information about each path available within UAA Aviation Technology, including admissions requirements and costs. Folks can also head to their offices to pick up the information. After reading through all the initial information, what Sanborn calls a “woah” moment, she will set up an appointment, and potential applicants can go over the requirements and take a tour of the building. From there, they can being their application process.

Much more information is available at UAA’s Aviation Technology website