Episode 29: SUU Aviation - Meeting the Needs of Students and Industry with Mike Mower

President Wyatt and Steve Meredith talk with Mike Mower, the Executive Director and Chief Flight Instructor in SUU's Aviation Program.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I'm your host, Steve Meredith, and joining me today in-studio is President Wyatt.

Scott Wyatt: Hello, Steve.

Meredith: Good to see you again.

Wyatt: It is great to be here, as always.

Meredith: I wonder if everyone knows, they probably don't, that my office is actually right next to yours, yet I see you probably more over here in this funny little back bedroom at the Center for Music Technology than I ever do over in our adjoining offices. Anyway…

Wyatt: [Laughs] Yeah.

Meredith: We're going to talk to one of the members of our staff from SUU Aviation, which is one of our really unique and interesting programs here at SUU, and it's a great way to kick off our 2018 fall semester podcast series. So, I'll let you introduce our guest.

Wyatt: I'll do that. So, we have Mike Mower with us today. Mike Mower is the Executive Director and Chief Flight Instructor for SUU's Aviation Program. Thanks for joining us, Mike.

Mike Mower: Thanks, President. Thanks, Steve. 

Wyatt: So, Mike, in the way of introduction to say that those are your titles misses a bigger story. So, you spent a lot of time in the military.

Mower: I did. I spent some time active duty in the Air Force and loved every minute of it.

Wyatt: And what drew you to aviation?

Mower: Well, primarily I went into the Air Force with the hopes and aspirations of becoming a pilot, only to quickly find out that that really wasn't going to happen in the military. Less than 1% of the Air Force flies, and of course, everybody goes into the Air Force hoping to be in that 1%.

Wyatt: [Laughs]

Mower: And it just doesn't happen. So, really, I spent my time seeing the planes, seeing the helicopters leave the field and wanted to be more of a part of that and…yeah. It became my mission in life. If I couldn't do it in the military, I was going to do it as a civilian.

Wyatt: Well, it kind of seems to me that…wasn't it 20 or 30 years ago that if you wanted to be a pilot, the most likely way was through the military?

Mower: It very much was, and you know, I bought into that and set my young mind and young heart on that path and it was only after enlisting and finding out that that wasn't going to be the case. But the military in general has greatly scaled back the quantity of pilots that they're actually producing, and then the ones they do produce—because of just the sheer cost associated with generating a military pilot—they're now paying more and more to retain these pilots. You know, you're six figure re-enlistment bonuses simply to keep these folks in.

Wyatt: So, where it used to be that the path was through the military for most I guess—was it most? Is that a fair way to say it?

Mower: Yeah, in the past, it definitely was.

Wyatt: But today, it's changed, hasn't it?

Mower: It has. It very much has. The military, again, not producing the quantity that they once did, it's really been pushed down to the civilian flight schools to really meet industry demand.

Wyatt: This is one of those interesting areas where the demand has grown because of a lot of reasons. Why don't you help us understand the scope of demand for pilots? Civilian pilots.

Mower: Yeah, so the industry in and of itself has really fundamentally changed in really just the last decade. We have, from an airline standpoint, when we think of large domestic or international carriers, we think of Delta and United. 10 years ago, that was it. When we evaluate the marketplace now, there are carriers the same size as Delta, United, American, that simply didn't exist 10 years ago. The mid-east has exploded from just a sheer need of air transportation, and that in conjunction with this growing retirement of not only pilots and mechanics, it's created this perfect storm. We have growth, we have retirements, and the Department of Transportation is now calling this the "silver wave" and this wave is set to come down on us in 2021 when this perfect storm of retirements and growth is going to come crashing down on us.

Wyatt: So, when I think about all of the programs at the university that we're training students in to meet industry needs and demands and help build the economy—all of those kinds of things—I have a whole series of them in my head that we could list out, but I'm not sure that there is any one that really has a shortage quite like aviation.

Mower: You know, we do one thing at the university and we do it very well, and that's churning out very well-rounded, highly educated graduates. And the aviation program has really been noticed and it's been noticed from an international standpoint on what we're able to supply and how we're able to supply graduating students into some just absolutely amazing jobs with really unlimited possibility within the aviation industry. Now, more than ever, aviation graduates really have the opportunity to almost write their own check. And what we're facing as a nation, as an international market has never been seen before. And we're just at the beginning.

Wyatt: Yeah, so what are the projections?

Mower: So, Boeing projects over the next 18 years that they'll need over 600,000 pilots. Airbus is around 500,000, and they comprise the majority of the commercial airline. On the maintenance side, they're projecting almost 700,000—this is Boeing—Airbus is again about 500,000. And then on cabin crew, it's closer to 2 million between those two companies. In just the next 18 years. On the helicopter side, the maintenance projection is 44,000 maintenance personnel—just for helicopter—and another 7,000 pilots in that same timeframe. Now, to give you an idea what the U.S. currently has as a licensed pilot core, there's around 600,000 airplane pilots in the U.S. and there's around 15,000 helicopter pilots. So, we look at what we currently have and has taken us generations to generate, we are not even going to be close to hitting these targets. On the helicopter side, we literally…there's no chance. The only way that we can even come close to these is expanding the reach, expanding the demographic, and really letting folks know that this is a viable, well-paying career and it is really open to everybody.

Wyatt: So, if you're looking for a job, this is a great time, isn't it?

Mower: This is the best time in the world.

Wyatt: It seems like it would be really smart for students to do to say, "OK, where is the greatest demand? And if I study that, then I'm guaranteed a job and a good salary and because there's such a demand, then I can probably pick where I want to live." But we don't always see things that way, do we?

Mower: No. And unfortunately, I think when a lot of educational decisions are made, incoming students, they want to see what kind of return on investment they're really looking at. And we had a…we completed a very interesting study on what the return on investment would be if somebody were to go into some of the big careers that students think of as, "This is a career that's going to allow me to live the lifestyle I want to live." So, we looked at a doctor, we looked at an attorney, and then we compared an airplane pilot and a rotor pilot. And the attorney, over the lifetime earnings, came back at about $35 for every dollar invested in education. The doctor came back at about $40 for every dollar. Rotor pilot came back at $45 for every dollar. And a fix-wing pilot came back at $55 for every dollar invested in education.

Wyatt: Wow, that's really amazing.

Mower: So, the barrier of entry is always going to be financial, but if the individuals that are interested are really looking at what is going to get them to where they want to be and is the investment worth it, it's hands down. It's by far the best way to go.

Meredith: So, Mike, you had talked…we were talking a little bit earlier about the educational requirements for this. You mentioned that pilots traditionally have come out of the military, but in the civilian world, a degree in the past was not necessarily required unless you had your eyes on certain, particular jobs or working for particular airlines in particular areas. But that's changing, right? And why don't we talk a little bit about what SUU has from a curriculum standpoint that allows people to achieve their degree goals?

Mower: Yes, and that's a great question. So, from the airline standpoint, a degree for the most part has almost always been required. It is now, for the regional airlines, they're so desperate that they've dropped their requirement down to an associate degree. However, to move to the next level into the majors—the Deltas and the Uniteds—you're looking at a bachelor's degree minimum to get into these highly sought-after careers.

Wyatt: But they don't care what your bachelor's degree is in, do they?

Mower: Umm, not necessarily. However, the FAA does. We have our Bachelor of Aviation and we also have an associate's, a Professional Pilot's Associates Degree, and what the FAA does is they say, "We're looking for somebody who is a completer, somebody who is well-rounded, and because you're coming out of a university program with a degree, we will drop the hour requirement to move into the commercial airlines. For an associate's degree…well, let me back up a little bit. With no degree, that minimum hour threshold is 1,500 hours. With an associate's degree, the FAA discounts that 250, so now you're entry threshold is 1,250, and for a bachelor's degree, they discount it a full 500 hours down to 1,000 hours. So, degrees are important. It allows you to move into areas where just being able to flight won't let you get into. But the FAA does place a very high priority on the degree.

Wyatt: But as far as majors go?

Mower: Well, so in order to get the discount from a flight standpoint, it does matter which degree. But if the individual already has met the hour threshold, then the degree is the most important thing, not what the degree is in.

Wyatt: Does it matter if I major in English or engineering or history or…?

Mower: You know, the industry would probably be better off if we had more folks that had majored in English and history. [All laugh] English is the international language of aviation, regardless of where you go, that is the language you have to be able to speak and write and read in. And as the global marketplace expands and more folks get out into these international marketplaces—which I'm very proud to say, our pilots that have graduated from SUU have flown on every continent—but they're taking along with them the English and the history and that just really broadens…it broadens not only how they're perceived, but it also helps everybody that they're around. They become the role models, and it's really good for everybody.

Meredith: You mentioned that you were experimenting with the Master of Interdisciplinary Studies degree also. Is that something that, as we look for graduate degrees, are we thinking there might be an aviation specific one? Or how are you going to proceed there?

Mower: Yeah. So, within the MIS degree, within the three branches, three legs of that degree, we are actively working towards making one of those nine credit branches pure aviation. We've started with some of our 3000 and 4000 level classes that would be bridgeable into the MIS, and we're actively working on a Deming leg through the Deming Institute to actually assist with the quality portion, which is so vital within aviation.

Wyatt: So, what we're talking about is a Master's of Integrated Studies, or MIS, which is a degree where the student gets to pick perhaps three areas that they really like and create their own master's degree. Instead of having a master's degree in business, for example, they'd have a master's degree in business plus outdoor recreation plus aviation, and that creates this really cool opportunity to create your own business flying people and to amazing places, to have adventures or something.

Mower: Yes.

Wyatt: One example. There's as many examples as there are people that want to put these together.

Mower: You know, and on the helicopter side, the pilot is the cabin crew, they're the safety officer, they're the pilot—they're really everything. And so, when we're targeting these degrees towards specific disciplines, on the helicopter side—the rotor side—these interdisciplinary studies degrees, the BIS and the MIS, they seem like they're almost custom made for our rotor students and graduates. Of course, we would like to take all the credit for that, but they were here before we ever started to take them over. The airplane guys—the fixed-wing folks—most of the time, by the time they're ready to move into the master's level, they're already in the industry, they're working, and this would be a way for them to advance within the company that they're working for.

Wyatt: So, Mike, with this…what we've basically got is a student can come to the university, major in whatever she wants to major in or he wants to major in, if it's the right major, it will quality for a little discount in hours, if it's not, they still qualify for a job. So, you can major in anything that really is exciting, and then move on to a career in aviation. And we've got this massive shortage. It just…and I've had a couple of opportunities to be with you in a helicopter or someone in an airplane where they say, "Take the controls, it's really quite fun."

Mower: This job is…it's really not a job. If you can make your vacation your vocation, then you never work a day, right? It's…the ability for me to jump in with a student into a helicopter—which by the way is the best means of transportation in the world [All laugh]—and go fly and be there as the light clicks on for that student…as an instructor, there's nothing better than being able to see that moment when it finally clicks. It is really unlike anything else here on campus.

Wyatt: So, Mike, I fly a fair amount, and when I'm flying, it seems to me that 99.11% of the time [All laugh]

Meredith: .11%? [Laughs]

Wyatt: Almost every time, it's a white, male pilot.

Mower: It is. That's one of the biggest hurdles that, as the industry is trying to wrap their head around, "How are we even going to come close to hitting these numbers that the industry needs just to maintain—not even grow—just to maintain, we cannot focus recruiting efforts globally on what, unfortunately, has become the main demographic of aviation. A middle-aged, white man. We have wholeheartedly embraced as an SUU Aviation Department, through…in working with our partners, working with some very amazing faculty and staff here on campus, "How do we reach out? And how do we educate women, minorities, that this should not remain the exclusive domain of the white man?" The opportunities are endless. The ability for somebody who may not have considered aviation a career option because they don't fit the mold. There's educational opportunities, there's scholarships out there, there's national organizations that are willing to help and we have made a commitment to our partners not only to produce highly qualified and educated pilots and mechanics, but to really increase the diversity. The only way the world is going to meet, even come close, to the numbers that are required is to expand the group of people that are flying.

Wyatt: So, you've got some female flight instructors and you've got some female mechanics working on the helicopters and airplanes, and it seems to me that they're very happy in those jobs, that they love them. They're jobs that are perfectly well-suited for men or women. And you've got some instructors and mechanics who are from various racial ethnic groups…so I guess part of what you're saying is, in order to meet this demand for pilots and for mechanics, we all have to…everybody needs to realize that it's for them or it could be for them and there's no stereotype for the kind of pilot. And that's important for us on the one hand, that we want everyone to have every opportunity that they can, and it's important on the other hand because, as you said, there's no way to meet the demand with just white, male pilots or mechanics. We've got to get everybody that's interested. And I've noticed over the years as I've flown, that I'm seeing increasingly more males as flight attendants, but not quite the same in pilots. Though I have flown a few times where there was a woman flying, but it seems far more rare that direction.

Mower: And unfortunately, it is. Less than 6% of the global population of pilots is either female or minority. It's current reality and the industry has recognized a need to change that. And SUU Aviation is trying everything we possibly can to assist with that. And it's really…the main thing that we try to get out is if somebody is willing to put forth the effort, there is a way to make it happen. And physically, there's no difference between men and women when it comes to flight or cabin crew or maintenance. These are just amazing careers and it really pains me to, when I run into somebody that says, "Well, I didn't think that I could get into that because I'm of the wrong ethnicity" or "I'm a female." And to me, that tells me that we're not doing a good enough job of getting that information out there.

Wyatt: Yeah. So, I've been flown by a female pilot…she did a fantastic job, she was really nice and attentive to everything in our program, and it's been fun for me to talk to some of your mechanics that are women and they seem to just really enjoy…you know, it's just a really cool job to be able to have, to be able to work on a helicopter for example. And once you develop the skills, there's nothing intimidating about it.

Mower: Yeah. Yeah, our Director of Maintenance on the rotor side is female and she does an absolutely amazing job, and this is…this industry is really one where you're judged based on your work and what you bring to the table verses what you look like or what your gender is. But, unfortunately, a lot of people never find that out because they don't think they can get into it.

Wyatt: They just assume that that's not the career that works.

Mower: Yep.

Wyatt: And your numbers on return on investment, I think some people come down and say, "Well, this seems like it's kind of an expensive program" because they have to pay for the flight hours. Seems like an expensive program, but the return on investment is spectacular.

Mower: It is, and the job opportunities…if students want to work anywhere in the world, the opportunity is there. The travel, the benefits…we've got time left to get more folks in before the robots take over. [All laugh] But yeah, for the next couple generations, we need pilots and…

Wyatt: Mike, what are helicopter pilots starting out at? What's the range?

Mower: On the low end, somewhere around $50,000 and on the high end, you're in six figures.

Wyatt: So, starting right out of college, you're going to start a new job between $50,000 and just over $100,000?

Mower: Yep, just over $100,000.

Wyatt: That's the first job?

Mower: First job.

Wyatt: First job out of college?

Mower: Yep.

Wyatt: And then what's the salary range starting for a fixed wing? For an airplane?

Mower: So, you're starting about the same—about $50,000 depending on the carrier—and then $80,000 to $90,000 initially starting. And then within just a few years, as…it's all about hours. As you build experience, build hours, then your salary of course goes up. On the rotor side, within a few years, most rotor pilots are somewhere in the six figures—$100,000, $150,000. And then on the fixed wing side, it's largely carrier dependent, but…

Wyatt: So, let's say that I'd been flying if you can—if you know this number well enough—let's say I've been flying for 10 years. What can I expect to make?

Mower: On the fixed wing side, you'd…if you were with Delta, United, FedEx, UPS, you'd be $200,000 plus.

Meredith: Do you have any openings in the program? [All laugh] We've chosen poorly.

Mower: And the really crazy thing about aviation is outside of the training realm, and I tell President this all the time, I don't know why I stayed in the training world because it's a seven day a week, 365 days a year job. The rest of aviation is a part-time gig. You're mandated through the FAA. You can only work really part-time, but you're getting paid full-time wages.

Wyatt: Yeah, I have a brother than flies for a major carrier. When he started, it was really hard to get a job, and I think that a lot of us have that still in the back of our head. When he started 20 years ago or 25 years ago, whatever it was, it was really hard to get a job. Now, it's not hard at all. But he's making a lot of money and he literally has a part-time job.

Mower: Yeah. Yeah, it's…the airplane world, depending on where you end up getting domiciled (where your base is) will determine what hours and what days and what months you work. On the helicopter side, sometimes it's one week on, one week off, two on, two off, or you'll work six months and then have six months off. So, it's a part-time job.

Wyatt: Yeah, I was comparing my hours at home with a pilot whose gone for a week and then back and it was pretty obvious that the pilot was home a lot more than I am.

Meredith: Yeah. [Laughs]

Wyatt: We tend to think, "Oh, well, yeah but I come home every night." Yeah, I come home every night, but after everybody's in bed. [All laugh]

Meredith: And you've still got to work.

Wyatt: And still got to work. Bringing the work home. [All laugh] That's one of the really neat things. My dad was, for some period of time, was a meteorologist for the Air Force and when he came home from work, he was home.

Meredith: Mhmm.

Wyatt: I mean, when he was done, he…the person that relieved him would come in, they would have an exchange for 15 or 20 minutes, then my dad would come home, and he didn't have a single thing to worry about until he showed up the next day. Most of us worry about our jobs all night.

Mower: Yes.

Wyatt: This is one of the things I think that my brother enjoys so much about being a pilot is that he gets to fly, he gets paid extremely well, and when he's not working, he doesn't have a single work stress and he can just have a great time.

Mower: Yeah. And you actually touched on a really good point. One of the things that a lot of employers outside of aviation will always push is that work/life separation. You know, when you're home, you're home. When you're at work, you're at work. The life of a pilot, when you're home, and as you've mentioned with your dad, you're present. If you've got kids, if you've got a wife, there are no other worries. You've left the job for a week, two weeks, a month, whatever. There are no other worries, and so you get to do something that very few of us get to do and that is be present when you're home.

Wyatt: Yeah. It's great. It's one of those things that people don't understand. And one of the reasons why we're talking about this career in particular in this discussion is not just because it's a good job, it's because the demand is so huge, and this is one of the problems that we're trying to help solved at Southern Utah University is that we see the huge shortage of pilots. We know how that's going to impact all of us.

Meredith: And the quality of life is good.

Wyatt: The quality of life.

Meredith: Yeah.

Wyatt: Yeah.

Mower: Yeah, we train great pilots. We've produced over 600 pilots since we've been in operation for five years. And we train in a very unique environment, unlike any other training environment within collegiate aviation. We're the highest altitude in school in the country, which then by default makes us the highest collegiate program globally, and within a few minutes, you're flying in mountains that are over 10,000 feet. The wind always blows in Cedar City, which from a flight standpoint, really benefits the students. We get to experience turbulence, high-level, high-altitude turbulence, low-level turbulence, how to fly in that.

Wyatt: Great training.

Mower: It's amazing training.

Wyatt: Great training.

Mower: And then combine that with the experiential education that SUU is known for, we train the best pilots out there.

Wyatt: And you've got how many pilots in the program right now? How many do we have in our program?

Mower: We're about 270 right now.

Wyatt: And they're coming from how many states in the country?

Mower: Yeah, 45 states, three countries, we've got…

Wyatt: What percentage of them are women?

Mower: Less than 10%. We're working. Our percentage is actually better than I think national average which is 6% of pilots. But, we have partnered with two women-specific aviation groups and Whirly-girls, which is a rotor specific program, and them Women in Aviation, which is not only just women pilots, but also mechanics. And that's something we're really excited about.

Wyatt: Wow. It's…until somebody has gone up in a helicopter, it's hard to understand how neat that is. And until you've sat in the front seat of an airplane, it's hard to understand how neat that is too. And until someone has stood in our hangers and looked at this beautiful fleet of Cirrus aircraft, the most safe training aircraft in the world as far as we know…

Mower: Mhmm.

Wyatt: If you have a mid-air issue, you pull the chord and a parachute comes out and gets you on the ground. It's such an amazing thought that the airplane itself has a parachute. [Laughs]

Mower: Yes. And everything about our program, from our safety protocols to the aircraft we've chosen, which is, as you mentioned, President, the Cirrus aircraft with the rocket assistant parachute that comes out of the back and brings the whole airplane down safely to the types of helicopters we fly, these are the best that anybody could acquire and we're one of the very few collegiate programs that flies the Cirrus, and we're the only collegiate program that flies this type of Cirrus. And it's our commitment to safety. We're committing to mom and dad when they put their children in the program that we're going to do absolutely everything we can to make sure that they not only get good, relevant training, but they also come back.

Meredith: You've been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. We've had as our in-studio guest today Mike Mower from the SUU Aviation Program. Thanks so much for listening, we'll be back again soon. Bye bye.