Pilot Program Takes Flight at Southeast


The Southeast Missouri State University Board of Regents today approved a new Professional Pilot Bachelor of Science.

The program now goes to the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development for review. Southeast hopes to begin implementing the program and admitting students in August with the program expected to launch in fall 2021.

“This is an outstanding opportunity for the University to stay on the leading edge of academic program innovation and to grow our enrollment,” said Dr. Carlos Vargas, president of Southeast Missouri State University.

Vargas said that shortly after arriving in Cape Girardeau in 2015 he began talking to people, including the manager of the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport and visited the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center about a professional pilot program.

At about the same time, he was approached by Ken Jackson of Dexter, Missouri, who had a very similar idea. Jackson, state supervisor of instruction with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and former superintendent of Dexter Schools, expressed to Vargas his keen interest in the development of a professional pilot program. Vargas and Jackson met to discuss their shared vision, and the program began to take shape.

“He had done a lot of research into a program and had already gathered a lot of information,” Vargas said. “When we talked, we both realized we had the same goal, and we were both really excited about the program. He was a champion from the very beginning.”

Jackson’s been interested in aviation for years and in May 2017 earned his Private Pilot License. He is a member of the Stoddard County Flyers, a local flying club based in Dexter, and of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).

“I was aware of the fact that Ozark Technical College (OTC) in Springfield, Missouri, began a new aviation program in August 2017.  When I reviewed their program, curriculum and facilities, it became apparent to me that Southeast Missouri State University and the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport, could offer everything that OTC provided,” Jackson said. “Knowing there was going to be tremendous opportunities in aviation, and learning of Dr. Vargas’ background and development of the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (drone) Program at SEMO, Dr. Vargas graciously agreed to discuss this with me,” he said.

In addition to these conversations, University leaders, City of Cape Girardeau officials and other local proponents of a pilot program traveled to Minnesota State University, Mankato, last fall to tour and learn about their pilot program.

Dennis Vollink of Cape Girardeau, vice president of engineering and flight operations with Drury Southwest, participated in that tour. He’s a commercial pilot with 10,000 hours of flying time and a retired military pilot.

“What we saw at Mankato State was impressive,” he said.

“I am very supportive both from an economic viewpoint and as it concerns the growth of the University,” Vollink said. “This is a much-needed career field” and dovetails nicely with other high-tech programs Southeast has developed, including its Unmanned Aircraft Systems program.

“It’s a good, natural fit,” Vollink added.

He said the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport is undergoing significant change, and this program could trigger growth at the facility.

Following the visit to Mankato State, Southeast officials continued refining plans for the  program and, following action by the Board today, they are confident it will soon take flight.

Cape Girardeau City Manager Scott Meyer said, “Aviation is a great career path for students and a great industry for our local economy. We are excited to connect University students with the hands-on learning opportunities at our airport.”

Cape Girardeau Regional Airport Manager Katrina Amos, said “the City of Cape and the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport are very supportive of this program and eager to partner with the University to make it a reality.

“Programs, such as the Professional Pilot program, have been successful in other communities, and we have no doubt it would be a success in our community as well,” she said.

Amos says the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport “has a unique setup, in that we own all facets of the airport including the air traffic control tower, making the airport the perfect training ground for student pilots.  We also have a large hangar facility with office space available that could be reconfigured as classrooms, allowing students the opportunity to be onsite to see how airports operate in real time.

“This program will certainly be an added benefit to the airport where “a lot of great things are happening,” she added.

Jackson said he believes students in the Southeast Missouri State University service area should have the same opportunity to experience aviation as students at other schools with such programs.

“While COVID-19 has created significant challenges in the aviation community, I do believe, in the long-term, there will be a demand for all things aviation — engineers, A&P mechanics, pilots, air-traffic control, flight instructors, security, airport managers, teachers, military, law enforcement,” he said. “Currently, Missouri has more than 100 aviation-related businesses.”

Regional, national and international demand for professional pilots continues to grow as the number of commercial pilots steadily declines, the result of many reaching mandatory retirement age thresholds. Southeast can play an important role in reversing this trend, he said. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, expected growth for pilots nationally is approximately 4.6% through 2028. In this area, in particular, many pilots on average are at least 55 years old. Data from Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. (EMSI) shows that in 2018, just 63 candidates graduated from pilot programs in this region while there were 1,218 pilot job openings.

Amos said with the nationwide pilot shortage, the more people can be exposed to the aviation industry at an early age the better.

“We have intelligent, capable students in the Southeast Missouri area who may want to explore this career path with learning opportunities close to home,” she said.

Jackson says Boeing’s 20-Year Pilot and Technician Outlook has forecast huge opportunities for pilots and other aviation professionals.

“The Cape Girardeau Regional Airport now has direct flights to Chicago and has experienced increased passenger travel, until COVID-19,” he said. “Over the next three years there will be many pilot retirements and with fewer pilots transitioning from the military, the need for new pilots will be increasing.

“I believe that students will demonstrate interest in the program,” Jackson said. “In fact, Cape Girardeau Public School’s Career & Technology Center provides students from sending school districts the opportunity to participate in a course called ‘Basic Flight’.  These students will complete their ground school instruction and pass the FAA exam, but will not accumulate enough flight hours to complete the check-ride.”

The Professional Pilot Bachelor of Science program will require a minimum of 121 credit hours of instruction, including 42 hours of general education coursework. Southeast plans to launch the program with minimal expense by structuring it similarly to other professional pilot programs. Under the program, Southeast will contract with a flight company that will own the aircraft and be responsible for maintaining them per contractual guidelines and FAA standards.

Vollink said this joint partnership with a flight company will be very beneficial and is a good way to grow the program with little cost at a time when state funding is limited.

Southeast has had initial discussions with the City of Cape Girardeau on partnering with the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport as a primary facility for the program.

“Offering the professional pilot program at Southeast Missouri State University would allow our students to meet all of their degree requirements — class instruction, ground school, accumulation of flight hours, FAA Private Pilot Certificate testing and FAA check-ride with a designated pilot examiner – locally,” Jackson said, resulting in increased job opportunities at Southeast and in the Cape Girardeau area.

He said he believes that students earning this degree will be more inclined to remain in the area and contribute to the local economy.

“We are extremely pleased to work collaboratively on developing this program and boosting the workforce with qualified pilots,” Vargas said. “We look forward to launching this new academic offering and making this new career path available to our students.”

Jackson added, “I have enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to work with Dr. Vargas and his staff at SEMO and was impressed with their efforts to thoroughly investigate other aviation programs.  Those of us in aviation like to say, ‘a mile of highway will take you one mile, but a mile of runway can take you anywhere.’”