Ozarka College in Melbourne touts its four-year-old aviation degree program as the best bargain for students looking for opportunity as commercial pilots.
“They walk out of here in two years with a commercial pilot’s license and very employable,” said John Catlett, director of Ozarka’s aviation program.
Ozarka hopes to employ some of its commercial pilots to help grow the aviation program. The idea is to recruit and retain students to become certified flight instructors.
The college benefits by expanding the teaching capacity of its aviation program, and the graduates get a paid position that allows them to add flying hours to their pilot logbook to expand their professional options and possibly become airline transport pilots.
The median annual wage for airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers was $140,340, according to May 2018 statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Labor. The median annual wage for commercial pilots was $82,240.
The coronavirus pandemic has interrupted commercial aviation, but Ozarka cites a 2018 Boeing pilot outlook report that projects 635,000 new commercial airline pilots will be needed to fly and maintain the world fleet during the next 20 years. That reflects a jump of 102,000 pilots in only the last four years.
Certified flight instructors are in demand as well. “Call any flight school,” said Richard Dawe, president of Ozarka College. “They are begging for CFIs.”
Fall 2015 marked the enrollment of Ozarka’s first batch of aviation students seeking their pilot wings. The effort began with educating entry-level pilots and shifted toward developing commercial pilots last year.
Nine students were enrolled in the commercial pilot program in the fall of 2018. A year later the headcount climbed to 33.
Helping propel enrollment is the $50,100 price tag of the two-year degree. “We’re dramatically less expensive than anywhere else I’ve seen in the nation,” Dawe said.
The pricing of the associate applied science degree is a reflection of Ozarka’s conservative fiscal housekeeping, which extends across all its programs, he said.
“We haven’t raised tuition since 2017,” Dawe said. “We’re the only two- or four-year college in Arkansas that has not raised tuition three consecutive years.
“I’m recommending to our board of trustees that we don’t raise tuition for the next school year, too. That would be four consecutive years.”
Dawe envisions adding 30-50 students to the aviation program during the next three years.
“We could be at 100 if we chose to,” he said. “I have full confidence that we could’ve recruited 75-100 students if we would’ve marketed more aggressively. We’re pacing ourselves and trying to serve these students the best we can.”
Like similar two-year aviation programs, Ozarka’s commercial pilot program positions its grads to qualify as airline transport pilots with 1,250 flight hours. The Federal Aviation Administration requirements for non-degree-holding commercial pilots is 1,500 hours. The threshold for commercial pilots with four-year aviation degrees is 1,000 hours.
Ozarka aligned its aviation program to facilitate the transfer of graduates interested in pursuing a bachelor’s degree at Arkadelphia’s Henderson State University or the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg.
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Since November, Ozarka has upgraded its aviation infrastructure with a second flight simulator and new hangar to house its fleet of six airplanes.
A Redbird full-motion flight simulator was added to the pilot training menu five months ago at its main campus in Melbourne. The sim brings another layer of realism to the dynamics of yaw, pitch and roll in the classroom cockpit during virtual flight lessons.
“It’s most valuable in the instrument training phase and in the multi-engine training,” said Catlett, the aviation program’s director. “We can set up a scenario for a student and stop the flight simulation for a teaching moment like an instrument approach to a bigger city with more air traffic or an emergency situation like learning to operate a multi-engine aircraft when one engine fails.
“How do you configure the plane to fly on one engine, to climb, to cruise and to descend? The first 200 feet off the ground are critical because if you don’t adjust you end up upside down. We train students for the worst case emergency procedures.”
The $127,000 purchase of the new flight simulator was funded by a 90%-10% grant from the Arkansas Department of Aeronautics.
The department also provided a 90%-10% grant to fund most of the $126,990 cost for site work associated with the new 4,800-SF hangar and an 80%-20% grant to help fund its $299,640 construction cost. Ozarka paid 20 years of advance rent to the city of Melbourne to help round out the funding.
The Melbourne Municipal Airport-John E. Miller Field, named for the local businessman and state legislator who was a fixture in the Arkansas House of Representatives from 1959-98, hosts flight operations for Ozarka’s aviation program. The airport also houses the program’s non-motion flight simulator.
Ozarka moved its airplanes into the new hangar on April 6. Primary flight training is accomplished through four Cessna 172Ns. Two are owned by the college; two are leased.
Ozarka also leases a Cessna 172G, a model with retractable landing gear and other features necessary for complex airplane flight training. Ozarka owns a Beechcraft 55 Baron, a twin-engined airplane for multi-engine flight training.
“Just because we’re a small rural airport doesn’t mean we can’t be a leader in innovation,” Dawe said of Ozark’s developing aviation program.
Beyond the main campus in Melbourne, Ozarka students attend classes in Mountain View, Mammoth Spring and Ash Flat. Enrollment this semester totals 1,065 split 48%-52% between full-time and part-time students.
Average age of its students: 26. Gender: 69% female, 31% male.
Ozarka President Richard Dawe represents a second generation of family ties to the college. His mother was in the first graduating class of licensed practical nurses nearly 43 years ago when the college was known as Ozarka Vocational-Technical School.
Before starting a career in higher education, Dawe served 24 years in the Navy, a stint that included flying EA-6 Prowlers.