Facing pilot shortage, University of Memphis offers aviation degree through Millington flight school

With a growing demand for commercial pilots, the University of Memphis is partnering with CTI Professional Flight Training in Millington to offer a Bachelor of Science in Commercial Aviation.

According to Boeing’s Pilot Outlook, North America will need an estimated 206,000 new pilots over the next 20 years to meet the industry’s needs.

“There is a demand for this. The closest option for this is Delta State down in Mississippi or Middle Tennessee in Murfreesboro. This is an option for local students, but also because of the local presence of FedEx,” said Dr. Joanne Gikas, interim dean of the University College at the University of Memphis.

The global logistics company announced on October 28 that it is seeding the program with $500,000 in scholarships. The $65 billion company employs thousands of commercial airline pilots for its 670-aircraft fleet. Additionally, FedEx has asked the university how they can help with recruiting. The carrier’s CEO also wrote a letter of encouragement for the nascent program.

An influx couldn’t come sooner. Historically, airlines have found a ready supply of pilots when they leave the military. However, armed services pilot recruitment numbers have been down. Many experienced pilots are also nearing the mandatory retirement age of 65. As a result, larger carriers have begun poaching pilots from smaller, regional outfits.

“In about 10 years the pilot shortage is really going to be felt,” said Gikas.

The process of concept to college programming was three years in the making. Informal backchannels had been built over the years between the University and CTI.

Al Mullen, a former FedEx pilot, and FedEx colleague Steve Harden started CTI in 1992 as a sideline business. In 2014, Mullen expanded CTI by buying Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Professional Flight Training, which had a decades-long presence there, and subsequently opened the Millington location at the former Memphis Naval Air Station airfield. 

Mullen made these moves to meet the projected spike in demand for pilot training. Along with it came the idea for a degree program for commercial pilots at a local university. The process of concept to college programming was three years in the making. Informal backchannels had been built over the years between the University and CTI. 

A flight plane at University of Memphis' partner CTI Professional Flight Training. (Submitted)

“My father probably went to U of M knocking on doors, knowing him. We also had some contacts at the university. Just people that we knew. I think we more or less got directly connected,” said Kyle Mullen, CTI managing director of flight training and aviation services.

After the concept gained approval from the University’s undergraduate council, the next hurdle was the Tennessee Higher Education Commission’s process.

The state’s protocol includes documentation detailing not only the need, but support for the program from industry and the community. This was followed by an external reviewer from another aviation program.

Approval came in July, and the first students were quickly enrolled for the fall semester.

“We turned it around three weeks later, right when the semester was starting, we went ahead and let in our first few students,” said Gikas.

Early enrollment is anticipated to be a moderate five to 30 students annually, but growth is expected, so the University College plans to hire a full-time program coordinator next year.

The interdisciplinary program offers a four-year degree upon completion. Coursework in business, communication or psychology, for example, will be completed at the university. Flight training will be taught at CTI’s Millington location. Ground classes will be taught at both campuses.

A chunk of the program  over 60 credit hours  will be completed in Millington, which includes ground training on instrument controls and flight simulation as well as in-the-air flight training for a private pilots certified rating. Once the qualifications are met for the private pilot rating, they then provide the ground training needed for a commercial pilot license, which includes a commercial pilot's flight lab simulator on a multi-engine aircraft.

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“Any training that is done in the aircraft is going to be done through us. Any check ride that is done in relation to certificate rating will be done through us as well,” said Mullen.

A check ride has three components: an FAA knowledge test, oral examination and a practical test, which is a flight with an examiner. Some of the coursework linked to the class curriculum, such as aviation weather, will be taught at U of M by one of their professors. 

And, there is a required number of hours of ground school for each flight certificate rating which will be accomplished at the flight school one-on-one with the student and their flight instructor.

To reach their certificate rating a pilot must log 1,500 hours of flight time.

“So, there is obviously a lot of coursework to fill in the extra time. We want them to finish their ratings as early in the program as possible so they can start getting set up with a job as a flight instructor when they graduate so they have that all greased and ready to go,” said Mullen.

Typically, working as a flight instructor is the next step for would-be commercial pilots. Not only can the pilot accrue flight hours, they can also earn money. But this process can take years and delays the hiring process into the commercial aviation field.

The program is looking to get a sizable chunk of those flight hours reduced. If the school gains FAA approval, 500 hours will be waived for students with a bachelor’s degree from the program. Many four-year aviation programs across the country have received approval.

“We are still working on that, but that is the end goal,” said Mullen.

Following graduation, some students have trouble nailing down a job.

“That’s when the pitfalls happen. By keeping them on the front side of their flight training, we are hoping we can get them all lined up for a job when they graduate. It’s already set,” said Mullen.

And, at the end of the day, a bachelor’s degree never hurts. In many professions, it’s the foot in the door.

“You are still going to get a better look on your resume with a four-year degree,” said Gikas.

While the first semester of the program is underway, a small group of administrators are working hard to market and grow the program. An advisor at the university has set dedicated time one day a week to it.

“He has actual time set aside on Tuesday afternoon for those students. So, they can call our office and get in one of those slots. He’s been doing group informational sessions. There’s a number of students that have been turning out,” said Gikas.

They have also reached out to other local educational institutions to build interest.

“We talked to the principal at East T-Stem because they have an aviation program at their technology stem school. So, we’re hoping to continue those conversations and open those pathways to the University of Memphis,” said Gikas.

The school’s aviation coordinator has also reached out to the ROTC, as well as the Air Force, Army and Navy. Additionally, a career day was held on October 26 at General Dewitt Spain Airport in North Memphis.

“We’re just trying to build right now. We’re optimistic,” said Gikas.

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