BATTLE CREEK, Mich.—The aviation industry is ready for takeoff after a pandemic pause, and a new, innovative facility puts Western Michigan University at the head of the pack to meet the growing demand.
“This is a pretty momentous occasion and opportunity for Western Michigan University,” says Tom Thinnes, recruitment and outreach manager for the College of Aviation. “It really resonates for the quality of the program, and this new building truly elevates us to the stature of how the industry already recognizes us.”
“If you talk to some of our graduates who are now flying for the airlines, they’re gushing about how great this is,” adds Capt. Dave Powell, dean of the College of Aviation. “Everything here is state of the art. We’re delivering the most sophisticated flight training of any program in America.”
We're delivering the most sophisticated flight training of any program in America.
—Capt. Dave Powell, dean of the College of Aviation
The $20 million Aviation Education Center (AEC), which has been in the works for more than a decade, dramatically expands educational opportunities for the College of Aviation and doubles the number of students it can accommodate. The growth couldn’t come at a more crucial time as major airlines stare down massive shortages in both pilots and mechanics.
“The need for this program is tremendous,” says Powell. “We’re more than just a flight program; we have a tech ops program training mechanics and another one for management operations. Those are the three primaries that most airlines have, and to be able to satisfy their needs here in Southwest Michigan, to me, is pretty special.”
A grand opening celebration and dedication is planned for Friday, Sept. 17, at the new Aviation Education Center. Industry partners, key stakeholders, government representatives and WMU community members will all be invited to attend. Anyone interested can RSVP online.
“Having had the opportunity to see the building go from blueprint to construction, I’m amped for the dedication. Sleek and unique, the state-of-the-art facility delivers the learning environment required for students today and in the future,” says Greg Dellinger, director of outreach and communications at AAR CORP., an international company that provides career resources and opportunities to Western aviation maintenance students through its EAGLE Career Pathway Program.
WATCHING DREAMS TAKE FLIGHT
The new facility was built with aviation in mind, including in the architecture and design details.
I like sitting by the windows so I can watch the planes take off and look at their approaches.
—Adaora Osolu, aviation flight science and aviation technical operations student from Ann Arbor, Michigan
“We don’t have hallways; we have concourses. We have classrooms, but you could also consider those gate areas,” Thinnes says. Even the light fixtures are shaped like propellers.
“People don’t get into aviation to be constrained; they get into aviation because they want to see the wild blue yonder,” Thinnes says while pointing to the windows that stretch from floor to ceiling all around the building, giving prime views of planes taking off and landing on the airstrip outside. “These windows allow our students to continue to dream and see their future with aircraft flying.”
“It’s fun and it really engages students to get excited for our future,” says Michael Coldagelli, who will graduate in December with degrees in aviation flight science and aviation management and operations. “Being a Western student—being a Bronco—is awesome, taking classes is great, doing flight training is really exciting, but honestly all of this is to prepare me for the future, which I know now is really going to be exciting.”
There are plenty of upgrades that come along with the new facility to help students better prepare for the industry, including exponential increases in the number of learning spaces. Students now have access to 11 classrooms, six advanced flight simulators, larger gathering areas for such events as career fairs and networking opportunities and—Powell’s favorite feature—25 pilot briefing rooms, up from just six at the previous facility.
“Those rooms provide our flight instructors with an opportunity to interact with our student pilots one-on-one in a private setting. It’s going to be soundproof with all the technology certified flight instructors need to help elevate the student’s experience when they are learning to fly,” Thinnes says.
A new paint lab will take the aviation technical operations program to an elite level, making it one of just a few in the country where students can experience the entire process of painting an aircraft.
“It’s going to give our students a technical advantage and competitive edge. They’ll be able to go out and get a job,” says Thinnes, adding all of Western’s programs far exceed industry minimum requirements. “A representative from Spirit Airlines was here last month and said, ‘I never realized the technical nature that you’re offering and the advanced materials and curriculum you’re offering.’ He basically told one of our students, Luis Jaime, that when he graduates and gets his airframe and powerplant license, he has a job with Spirit waiting.”
“Western brings all the top resources available right now. We’re advancing with technology because technology is always changing,” says Jaime, an aviation maintenance technology student from suburban Chicago. “I’m excited to experience the new building.”
INDUSTRY TAKING NOTICE
At the end of the day, every upgrade in the new facility is focused on one thing: creating more opportunities to propel Western students into meaningful careers. Western boasts not only the third largest collegiate aviation program in the nation but also the only program to land partnerships with United Airlines' Aviate, Delta's Propel and AAR's EAGLE Career Pathway Program, offering students a clear pathway to a career through training and mentorship.
“One of the reasons I came to Western was the industry connections. Our airplanes are awesome, but as a student and a prospective future airline pilot, what I wanted to know is how easy it would be for me to get a job,” says Coldagelli, who grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The connections paid off; he was accepted into the United Airlines Aviate program, which creates a runway to his dreams of being a United Airlines pilot. The company has recently committed to hiring 10,000 pilots in 10 years.
“We’re looking for the best and brightest, and our partnership with Western Michigan is absolutely an example of how we’re building that pipeline,” says Sue McGrath, a pilot recruiter for the Aviate program. “We’ve based our partnership on the certifications and the stellar reputation of the University. And the investment here is just an example of what the school is willing to do to help these students be successful.”
“In my opinion, WMU is preparing aviation maintenance professionals at a very elevated level,” adds Dellinger.
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