BRUNSWICK — The University of Maine at Augusta is attempting to train the next generation of pilots while investing in the new technology to do so.
Its aviation program on Wednesday unveiled a new $500,000 plane approved by the University of Maine System Board of Trustees in September — a Cirrus SR20 GS — that will allow the aviation program to expand from Augusta to the UMA center at the Brunswick airport.
Some of the first people to fly in the new plane were high school students attending summer camp through the aviation program. A group of six rising 12th graders spent eight days at the school after spending a year in the early college course a year prior.
They got to fly for the first time this week with the help of instructor Greg Jolda and some increasingly new technology — virtual reality and flight simulators — that prepared them for take-off.
Kate Pfleging is a homeschooled student from Vassalboro who attended the camp. She first decided to go into aviation as it is a field that’s “really needed” currently. Her second time flying, ever, was this past week and in UMA’s new plane.
“I wasn’t really scared, but it was a little intimidating,” she said. “Sometimes you get a little queasy but that’s what the bags are for.”
Employment for airline pilots is projected to grow 14% by 2030 and employment for commercial line pilots are expected to grow 11% in the same time frame, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and shared by UMA’s dean, Brenda McAleer.
McAleer said the growth is projected as the country, and the world, comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which time pilots were furloughed. But now air travel is expected to increase, not only by commercial flight, but through importing cargo, transporting packages and air flight services to hospitals.
UMA’s flight program started in 2013 and remains as the only university in the state to offer bachelor’s degrees in traditional flight and remote pilot instruction. It started in a public-private partnership with Maine Instrument Flight.
Flight training was originally offered at the Augusta State Airport, with Maine Instrument Flight, and now, with the investment of the new plane, students will be able to fly out of the Brunswick Executive Airport, where UMA has classrooms and flight training facilities. UMA will still maintain its partnership with Maine Instrument Flight with the purchase of the plane.
The new plane will allow UMA to have its own “tail number” where the program will become Federal Aviation Administration Part 141 certified this coming fall. Previously, the partnership with Maine Instrument Flight helped the program become certified.
Since 2016, the program has grown from 36 students to 50 in the latest year, with 27 students already confirmed for the upcoming fall semester, according to Jon Henry, vice president of enrollment management at UMA. The degree offered is a bachelor’s degree in aviation, flight instructor, in which a pilot’s license is needed as a prerequisite and a certificate in unmanned aerial system operations, otherwise known as drones.
Alongside the new technology added to the syllabi, it will be one of the “more competitive programs east of the Mississippi,” Jolda, the aviation instructor and UMA aviation program coordinator, said at Wednesday’s event.
In the couple of months since she graduated in May, Amber Kochaber has already secured a job at Maine Instrument Flight, where she teaches people ranging from high school students to adults how to fly. Students have to be at least 16 years old to reach their first solo fight, but there are no age requirements in the state of Maine for flight training.
Since she started flying four years ago, Kochaber said anecdotally that she has seen an increase in the number of people of all ages who want to learn how to fly, and is “not sure what struck” the increase. She enjoys teaching and seeing the reaction people have when they fly for the first time.
“I feel like I’m always learning something new,” Kochaber said of flying. “Every flight is something new and I’m able to teach someone something new.”
Kochaber said in the short time she graduated from UMA, the virtual reality, or VR, training is new, and that it realistically simulates what it’s like to fly a plane. Another way the university simulates flight is through the Redbird FMX Simulator, where students can mimic the controls of a plane and feel what it’s like to actually be moving.
Building and flying drones is part of student instruction. The drone program is not new — it began in 2017 — but provides the extra step of simulation for students.
Dan LeClair, the director of UAS (Unmanned Aerial System) Education & Research, said his colleagues believe flying drones are the future of the flight industry. He mentioned how in the Ukraine-Russian war, drones are used to destroy artillery.
“All of the courses at UMA, we include learning how to fly as a part of those courses, so you are always flying to complete something,” LeClair said. “Like everything else in aviation, it helps to get flight instruction to learn how to fly.”
Because the FAA does not currently allow those “planes” to fly beyond the visual line of sight or to be in the air above 400 feet, what the students can do now is limited, but there is the potential for more in the future.
“When the FAA does allow flight beyond the line of sight, we could use them for shark sightings where here (at the Brunswick center) have a direct path to the ocean and we can fly all around looking at the sharks, or we can use them agriculturally for crops,” LeClair said.
The new technology will be intertwined into this coming school year and this week’s campers will get to experience it as they head into their final year of high school and complete classes simultaneously at UMA.
Nathaniel Best, a Whitefield resident, plans to enter his senior year at Lincoln Academy and then attend UMA the following year.
Best has goals to either be a commercial airline pilot or to transport cargo, like through FedEx. Before the summer camp this week, he had experience flying a seaplane with a friend of his but is still working on his landing, which he hopes to learn in UMA’s Ground Class this fall.
“We are getting to the fun part now,” he said.