CHAMPAIGN — With one year to go before the University of Illinois Institute of Aviation is shuttered, local officials with Parkland College and a not-for-profit defense contractor are considering a partnership to keep pilot training in Champaign-Urbana.
Next month, representatives from Parkland, the UI and Riverside Research, a New York-based organization that provides engineering and other technical services to governments and businesses, will meet to discuss a possible arrangement and plot the next steps.
What this possible agreement would look like — such as Parkland's role, Riverside's services and the UI's involvement — has yet to be pinned down. Nor is it clear which organization would take possession of the UI's 30 single-engine aircraft or what will become of the approximately 20 aviation institute employees.
At this point, the concept of a reinvented flight school at Willard Airport is simply "in their heads ... a good idea," said Kris Young, vice president for academic services at Parkland.
"But this is very complicated for Parkland. For us, it would be a sizable and different addition to what we do, so there's a lot of deliberate study going on," Young said.
The University of Illinois Board of Trustees voted in July 2011 to close its Institute of Aviation after campus administrators cited declining interest in the program and estimated that the university could save as much as $750,000 a year. Several months before the board's decision, institute staff, alumni, and members of the aviation industry tried to persuade UI officials to change their minds.
However, the institute's elimination was approved and a closing date set for August 2014 to allow current students time to finish their degrees. At the time, Parkland expressed an interest in possibly taking on some aspects of the program.
Parkland does not currently have aviation-related courses; however, in previous years it has offered what Young described as "ground school" courses, not-for-credit classes open to anyone. The courses are conducted in the classroom and do not involve in-the-air training.
Local Riverside Research employees declined to speak about the proposal, but the company did release a statement that acknowledged such talks are being held.
"Riverside Research is exploring launching a Champaign-based institute focused on basic and applied research in manned and unmanned aerial systems and is considering coupling its research institute with a manned aircraft pilot training program. The parties are exploring options for collaborating," the statement said.
Riverside, which has research centers across the country, opened a computational science and engineering laboratory in Champaign in 2009. Researchers there are involved in various projects for government agencies, such as the Department of Defense, and business, such as the agriculture and aerospace industries.
"There are a lot of details to be run down, a lot of alternatives. We certainly remain cautiously optimistic because of the need for a program like his and the need for pilots," said Tom Emanuel, interim director of the UI Institute of Aviation.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, hiring of airline and commercial pilots is expected to grow 11 percent from 2010 to 2020. In its recent market outlook, The Boeing Co. described demand for personnel to fly and maintain airliners in the next 20 years as "unprecedented."
Because of Federal Aviation Administration rules, pilots must retire when they reach the age of 65, and there are many pilots on the cusp of reaching that milestone, Emanuel said. Putting further pressure on the employment situation is foreign airlines looking to hire U.S. pilots and that civilians operating drones are required to have pilot certification, Emanuel said.
"Part of what we are looking at is (if the aviation institute closes), there's nothing between Chicago and Carbondale for flight instruction," Young said. The college also is reviewing labor market and industry studies.
She said Parkland could offer a two-year associate's degree in science, possibly applied science, with a curriculum tied to aviation training. Parkland offers several other applied science associate degrees, such as in occupational therapy and computer networking. If a student is interested in becoming a commercial pilot — airlines require four-year degrees — he or she could complete the aviation training with Parkland and Riverside, then transfer to a four-year institution like the UI.
"I would love to see a special Parkland Pathway to Illinois that supports aviation students," Young said.
Parkland Pathways is a dual-admission program with the UI in which full-time Parkland students can also take UI courses and transfer to the university if they fulfill certain requirements.
During spring semester, the UI institute had 77 students. About 50 are enrolled in courses this summer. That's down from a recent peak of 266 in the 2006-2007 school year.
Since trustees approved its closure, the institute has not accepted new students. Emanuel said about half of those currently enrolled are finishing up the bachelor's degree in human factors, which focuses on the safety and effectiveness of planes and pilots.
The institute has 15 full-time instructors and another four part-time employees. Their fates as of next August, when the institute is to officially close, are unknown.
"Everything is still open for consideration. We're hoping some way to continue things, and continue to teach one way or another," Emanuel said.
Young said she has met with UI officials and Riverside employees, but the three groups have not been in the same room at the same time to talk about options.
The July meeting "will tell us a lot if this seems like a good idea. ... We will learn a lot more in the next several weeks," she said.