KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Western Michigan University is preparing to take its College of Aviation to new heights — figuratively.
The WMU Board of Trustees has approved up to $20 million to purchase a new fleet of aircraft for the college. Raymond Thompson, dean of WMU’s College of Aviation, said the new fleet is needed to replace the school’s current planes with the latest field technology at a time when the demand for pilots is soaring.
“When we acquired our previous fleet of Cirrus aircraft, Western stood out for the type of training and skills students were able to develop because of the quality of the planes and the high level of technology we equipped them with,” Thompson said in a statement.
Thompson believes a new fleet would make WMU one of the best aviation programs in the country. He’s not the only one. Even without the new fleet, Flying Magazine ranked WMU as a second-tier program — one of four in the country. The University of Oklahoma was the only aviation program to be named to the top tier.
The funding will come as a loan from the WMU Foundation. The $20 million is expected to help cover 32 new training aircraft as well as a “Super Decathlon” training aircraft, which is used to practice “specialized skills.”
Thompson says he doesn’t expect to use the full $20 million loan. The College of Aviation plans to sell off its current fleet of 28 planes to reduce overall costs.
The process won’t happen overnight, Thompson said.
“When we take delivery in two stages, half the new fleet will arrive, at which point, we will sell half of the existing fleet. That’ll be rolled back into the reduction of the loan,” Thompson told News 8.
The fleet of 28 Cirrus SR-20 G2s built in 2005 will be replaced with 32 brand-new Cirrus SR-20 TRACs. While they’re small, these single-engine planes have a bigger role in training students for the bigger cockpits.
“They’re single-pilot, single-prop, but the electronics inside it look almost exactly like what I’m going to see in a regional jet,” Thompson explained.
Combined with increasing maintenance costs, Thompson said the net gain of four planes allows them better flexibility for larger classes.
“When you look at how many airplanes times scheduled block hours in a day, times days of the week, it’s a mathematical equation as to how many students can you have,” Thompson said. “Increasing to 32 (planes) will allow us to have more blocks available for students to fly in.”
The investment doesn’t just stop with just the physical aircraft. Thompson says he and fellow administrators have to talk to FRASCA — the maker of their flight simulators — to see if they can retrofit what they already have towards the TRAC model or replace them outright.
Junior Matthew Rendell believes the new fleet will help Western’s fight against the pilot shortage, since the skills from the newer technology will be a plug-and-play for the bigger birds they’ll be flying.
“It’s definitely going to make our transition to flying these larger aircraft pretty straightforward by the time we get there. The Cirrus, behind those advanced screens, transferring that to our Boeing 737 simulator and eventually when we’re out the door and going to these airlines to our initial training,” Rendell said. “I’m really excited to see how this new generation of Cirrus aircraft takes that to the next level.”
The first round of new aircraft is expected to arrive on campus sometime next year. All 32 planes are scheduled to take the tarmac and skies above by 2025 at the latest.