Keeping flight school on time, on budget

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There’s no doubt pilots should be well-trained for the job, but how much is too much or too long to finish an aviation program?

Dozens in Hawaii every year set about making a career in flight at the Honolulu Community College’s aviation program.

It’s no small sum. The advertised price comes out to up to $55,000 – most of that in flight time. That’s where a former student alleges her class got slowed down.

“The instructors they had were only their part time,” says Pegi Braun, who paid the tuition on behalf of her granddaughter who was the student. “Nobody was really on top of the program. Because they did not finish her flying she had an incomplete. And at HCC you have an incomplete after so many days it turns to an F.”

Braun spent more than $40,000 but the student ended up with only a private pilot license and instrument rating, and no commercial qualification, at the end of the program. She works at a Kauai convenience store now.

“I constantly was calling HCC and complaining,” Braun said. “The only thing I ever got from them is ‘we know we have problems and we’re going to improve it.'”

HCC remembers it differently.

“It never came to my attention that we had big droves of students who couldn’t schedule flight times,” said Erika Lacros, the community college’s chancellor, who oversees the vendor that carries out the flight instruction. She also keeps tabs on how the students are moving through. “They have to be sure that they stay on top of those flight lessons, and when we don’t schedule them out and work with the students to make sure that they’re flying on a regular basis, they end of having to repeat things.”

Repeat, because flying is not like a run of the mill college course.

“Because you get assessed each time you step into that aircraft, your flight instructor is going to say okay you haven’t flown for a while,” Lacros said, “so we need to go back and repeat the things that you missed on this initial assessment.”

So KHON2 asked this about the student who alleges she spent too much for too little:

“Did your granddaughter do everything she was supposed to do?” KHON2 asked Braun

“Was she a good student? Did she take every opportunity for flight time?”

“She was a good student, she had no problems with school, she was always available to fly,” Braun said. “Her instructor many times wasn’t and I would always ask, well, can’t they substitute another instructor? How many are there?”

In an email to the student from the time period in question — mid-2011 — the HCC commercial aviation program coordinator acknowledges many students were “distracted” from their students, had not passed certain FAA tests and states “so many of the students have not studied this summer.”

So KHON2 went to the flight school to try to sort it out. Galvin Flight Services was sold last fall – after the period in dispute — to a local owner, though it kept the Galvin name.

KHON2 asked one of its top flight instructors this: “As the flight provider can you guarantee that the HCC students will get access to the instructors they need to finish on time?”

“We are available here 24 hours a day 7 days a week, and so we fly all the time here” instructor Rob Moore said. “As you can see right now it’s summer session for the school however we’re here flying. I had 14 flights today.”

One of them the day KHON2 was there was student Nico Rascon.

“I think the biggest part is knowing what you’re getting into beforehand and not getting into it and then getting overwhelmed by what you just got yourself into,” Rascon explained.

Sometimes that means try and try again — and spend again — to get it right.

“I kind of had trouble with landing the airplane so had to practice that a lot more,” Rascon said. “so I didn’t meet the minimum until I went back and practiced.”

Other factors can drive up the price and duration of a flight degree.

“What happens is the student can make it more costly if they fly, wait a month, and then fly again, don’t study, not prepared for the class, etc.,” Moore said. “What they could do is be prepared for the class and then regularly fly. It’s very important for them to come and fly at least 2 to 3 times a week.”

Even though it’s not a fixed-price type of endeavor, student Rascon does have his mind on the money and on the time.

“That’s why I’ve been flying I think every day,” Rascon said. “That’s not really common, I think I’ve seen maybe 2 or 3 people do that with me where I see them every day here.”

He’s also seen just a handful graduate with the associate degree. HCC acknowledges that.

“We only have a couple of graduates a year usually,” Lacros said.

A couple graduates, while the current classes have about 50 enrolled.

“It may be for their own reason they’re not interested in earning that specific degree but are enrolled just to get that flight time and that certification by the FAA,” Lacros said.

When it comes to just the certification, the numbers are much better — as high as 99 percent of students pass the test to get the FAA certifications. They can get a lucrative job with just that certificate well before finishing the associate degree.

But HCC wants more degree-holding graduates. We asked what they’re going to do about that.

“That’s something that the college can work on because having that degree in your hand is so important,” Lacros said, “and not just in this program but just across the board in all of our programs.”

She said HCC is focused on higher graduation rates.

“We’ve got the ’15-to-finish’ campaign which is showing students if you take more credits each semester you get done quicker, and you’re just more successful overall,” Lacros said.

Students like Rascon get the message.

“I’m actually trying to go for my bachelor’s degree, so if I were to just take my certificate and run it would make getting my bachelor’s degree that much harder,” Rascon said. “Since I’ve put in all the effort to get these credits for the academics, I might as well use them and get something out of it.”

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