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Cadets prepare for skies with pilot program

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Dr. Peter Dittmer, chief pilot for the professional pilot program at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell, also heads the flight instruction for NMMI students. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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With its professional pilot degree aloft, Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell has found a good source of students just a few miles up the road.

The program has taken off on the New Mexico Military Institute campus as well, with ground school instruction occurring there for the first time in a few years.

Cadets are earning academic credit toward their diplomas and associate’s degrees, while also working toward a pilot’s license. NMMI staff also can enroll.

The program will help cadets be competitive in a global world, an NMMI dean said.

“We believe as we prepare young men and women, giving them the necessary foundations in leadership, aviation is a part of that, and this opens up avenues for a career in the field,” said Brig. Gen. Douglas Murray, dean of academics for NMMI.

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It also gives an advantage to those cadets who anticipate heading to a military academy, especially if they plan to be pilots, he said.

Murray said that NMMI always has offered a flight training program of some sort, typically through flight clubs, but he said that the ENMU-R academic program gives more structure, academic rigor and college-level credits, while meeting FAA requirements for a private pilot license.

ENMU-R has obtained Federal Aviation Administration Part 141 approval for its ground school and awaits similar approval for the flight portion of the program.

If students were to continue on to complete ENMU-R’s associate’s degree, they could earn a commercial pilot license. That enables them to earn money as pilots, not for commercial passenger planes but as pilots of smaller craft carrying cargo and freight.

“We are the only public option out there,” said ENMU-R Vice President for Academic Affairs Ken Maguire. “If someone wants a pilot’s license, how do they get that?”

He explained that the other options at this time are either colleges and universities in other states or more expensive pilot training programs with for-profit groups.

According to the FAA website, there are only seven currently approved aircraft pilot programs in New Mexico, and ENMU-R is the only university offering pilot training. Whether students taking pilot training from a for-profit company or a flight club can transfer their credit to a university associate’s or bachelor’s degree program is often uncertain.

Beating the costs of the ENMU-R program also would be difficult, according to university staff. Murray said NMMI high school cadets in ground school pay about $300 for textbooks and testing fees, with tuition waived. NMMI junior cadets pay $367 in tuition in addition to the $300.

Flight school costs go up significantly to a $1,000 or more, but Murray said that is still less expensive than competing programs.

Ten NMMI cadets and staff are enrolled in the ground school during the evening classes at NMMI this semester, Murray said, and two cadets have begun their flight training on a simulator and in a plane at ENMU-R and the Roswell airfield.

The flight portion of the NMMI training is headed by Chief Pilot Peter Dittmer of ENMU-R and is offered through the university’s Center for Workforce and Community Development, rather than through its degree-granting academic program.

Among the NMMI staff in the pilot training program is Lt. Col. Colleen Cole-Velasquez, director of marketing and communications.

A flight attendant early in life, she said she has long been interested in aviation. Seeing flight operations up-close impressed upon her the value of having pilot training.

“You never know when you might need it,” she said, “and I am one of those people who is always willing to take on a new opportunity and take the chance to gain new skills.”

Velasquez might never use the training professionally, but building the nation’s professional pilot workforce is a focus of both the private sector and the military.

Various industry reports show an increasing need for pilots worldwide during the next decades, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports an expected job growth for commercial pilots of about 4 percent in the United States from 2016 to 2026.

But the number of newly trained pilots has been declining in recent years. A November 2017 website post by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association reported that FAA private pilot certificates issued on an annual basis by the Federal Aviation Administration are down by 66 percent since 1980. The rising cost of non-college-based programs was cited as one of the factors for the drop in numbers.

Some of those statistics and market conditions are why ENMU-R and NMMI think their collaboration is worthwhile.

“This is good for NMMI, good for their cadets and good for the community,” said Chad Smith, ENMU-R assistant vice president of technical education.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.