"The Sky's No Limit," by Therese Vaughn
Comedian Louis C.K. says of the miracle of human flight, “Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going,‘Oh my God! Wow! You’re flying! You’re sitting in a chair, in the sky!”
Even more wondrous is maneuvering those steel wings through the air with 300 people on board. Piloting an aircraft, like music, requires a precision of technology, attention and timing, but from within these controls rises an ineffable grace.
Keaton Stengel, a junior at UNO’s Aviation Institute, says it’s difficult to describe the feeling: “Going airborne for the first time is truly a one-of-a-kind experience, especially shortly after takeoff ... I was in awe at the sight of downtown Omaha to the west and the open farmland in Iowa to the east.”
Stengel, originally from Texas, raves about the opportunities the institute presents. “The staff are just great, and the resources provided through alumni and the Omaha aviation community are phenomenal.”
In the heart of fly-over country, UNO’s Aviation Institute offers a comprehensive education, state-of-the-art flight simulation facilities, in-sky training and, perhaps most valuably, a network of mentoring, internship and professional opportunities through its innovative pipeline program.
The timing couldn’t be better for students at the institute, which opened in 1990 and operates within the College of Public Affairs and Community Service. During the past two decades, a growing global economy and shrinking pilot ranks have resulted in a tremendous demand for a new generation of pilots, air-traffic control managers and cabin crew. Boeing projects the need for 2 million new aviation personnel by 2035. Answering this call requires just the kind of educational outreach and career pathway programs that UNO has engineered.
Fortunately, the salaries in aviation also are seeing some altitude. Director of the institute Scott Tarry says it’s about time.
“It’s not been until the last couple years that we’ve seen the industry wake up to the realization that if they want people to embark on careers in aviation, they need to take care of them, increase the pay and improve working conditions.”
While the tuition for UNO’s aviation program is cost-effective, particularly for in-state students, logging the sky training hours can be expensive, Tarry notes. Historically, students graduating with a bachelor’s degree and a first officer’s flight certificate of 1,000 hours were getting paid an entry wage of $10-12 and a regional airline salary in the mid $20,000s – not so appealing.
According to UNO Aviation Institute faculty member and former director Scott Vlasek, the once-overcast sky for young pilots is beginning to clear. Regional airlines are partnering with educators to create a classroom-to-cockpit pipeline, offering signing and retention bonuses to attract students before they even graduate.
“It’s a unique and interesting time for our students,” Vlasek says, emphasizing the collective effort it takes to launch a pilot into a first officer’s seat. “We have good relationships with several regional carriers, such as Jet Linx Omaha and Envoy.”
Last semester, Envoy (a subsidiary of American Airlines Group) sent a regional jet down to Omaha to pick up 45 UNO aviation students and fly them to Dallas for the day. There they explored the full spectrum of a regional and major airline, from training facilities to dispatch operations.
“If I had been told four years ago that Envoy and American Airlines were going to charter a flight for me and my peers to go to Dallas to tour their headquarters, I probably wouldn’t have believed it,” Stengel says.
“It was a real eye-opener,” Tarry says. “The pipeline program shows our students the whole scope and scale of the industry they want to join. It makes a lasting impression, that this is a company that really wants them, that this is a realistic career path they can chart.”
Living the Dream
After graduating in 2014, UNO alum Zach Lundeen soared through the pipeline program with Envoy Airlines. He reached the eligibility requirements for becoming a first officer in December.
“One of the many benefits working for Envoy Airlines is our flow-through agreement with American Airlines,” Lundeen says. “Under this agreement, Envoy pilots will flow directly to American Airlines with no additional interview required.”
Lundeen’s interest in flying took wing when he was 5-years-old. Diagnosed with Leukemia, he would often fly on a small commuter aircraft to Denver for treatment.
“Seeing the pilots in their uniforms and looking inside the cockpit allowed my mind to become distant from the thought of being sick and treatment regiments that would soon follow,” he says.
Like Lundeen, most aviation professionals first dream of becoming a pilot in childhood. However, careers in the aviation industry extend way beyond flying a plane to include air traffic control and dispatch, airport administration and grounds operations, safety and security management.
“Most of our students want a commercial airline pilot job,” Tarry says. “For about 80 percent of incoming freshmen, it’s the institute’s professional flight concentration that draws them, but once they see what piloting involves, some turn to other roles within the field. By graduation, half are pursuing the aviation management concentration.”
Besides offering a bachelor’s degree in aviation with two possible concentrations available, the institute also has a Masters of Public Administration degree with an
It is one of only eight advanced degree programs of its kind in the nation.
Recognized for its excellence in education and research, the institute’s mission is also to engage in the community. Students and faculty host a monthly Exploring Post through Boys and Girls Scouts Learning for Life’s career education program to expose teenagers to a future in aviation through hands-on experiences, tours and guest speakers. UNO’s chapter of Alpha Eta Rho, a collegiate coed fraternity, also works with area youth organizations to promote aviation education.
The institute is particularly committed to advancing the presence of women in piloting. UNO’s Women in Aviation chapter actively promotes female participation in the aviation industry, scholarships and educational opportunities while sponsoring outreach projects for youth.
The inspiration of Amelia Ehrhart notwithstanding, women make up just 5 percent of pilots at major and regional airlines in North America, according to the Air Line Pilots Association (2016).
“It’s been a challenge,” Tarry admits. “Of course, there’s nothing inherently male about being a pilot. Proficiency studies indicate that women are equal if not superior to men. Despite the cultural stigma, we’ve had some incredibly successful women alumnae who are very strong-minded and capable.”
With a sunny forecast ahead for aviation careers, maybe the sky won’t be the limit for both men and women in the years to come.
Our Campus. Otherwise Known as Omaha.
The University of Nebraska does not discriminate based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, disability, age, genetic information, veteran status, marital status, and/or political affiliation in its programs, activities, or employment. Learn more about Equity, Access and Diversity.