New UCA aviation academy to take flight in Conway

Academy takes flight in Conway

The entrance to Conway Regional Airport at Cantrell Field is shown in this undated courtesy photo. (Photo courtesy Conway Regional Airport at Cantrell Field)
The entrance to Conway Regional Airport at Cantrell Field is shown in this undated courtesy photo. (Photo courtesy Conway Regional Airport at Cantrell Field)


The University of Central Arkansas, city of Conway and Conway Regional Airport are partnering to address the nation's pilot shortage with a new aviation academy.

The UCA Aviation Academy, which will result in private and commercial aviation training, ratings and licensure, is scheduled to open in March 2024, according to UCA. It'll be operated by the UCA Division of Outreach and Community Engagement and conducted in partnership with Central Flying Service of Little Rock, "the premier general aviation firm of the South."

Enrollment will be open to anyone 17 and older, regardless of university student status, according to UCA. Students can expect to complete the program in two years, at a total cost of roughly $57,000, but significant grants and aid are available, and military and veterans can utilize the GI Bill or military tuition assistance.

"I couldn't be more grateful for the combined efforts at the University of Central Arkansas, the city of Conway and the Conway Regional Airport to spearhead this initiative," Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a news release from UCA. "Our state faces critical skilled worker shortages in industries like aviation. It will take all of us working together on new projects like the UCA Aviation Academy to overcome these challenges and lead Arkansas's economy into the next decades and beyond."

The aviation industry will experience roughly 17,000 openings annually for airline and commercial pilots over the next decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Airlines hired more pilots in 2022 than any year since 1990, and they're expected to hire 18,000 pilots next year, according to UCA. The median pay for airline pilots is $210,000.

"The state of Arkansas has workforce demands in aviation that require new paths to allow citizens to access in-demand credentials and immediately transition into employment," Arkansas Division of Higher Education Commissioner Ken Warden said in the UCA news release. "UCA, the city of Conway and Central Flying Service are to be commended for their joint commitment to innovative solutions to this challenge for our state."

The UCA Aviation Academy, which has partnered with several aviation companies to assist with career placement, will provide students with knowledge, skill and aeronautical experience to meet requirements for pilot certification, according to UCA. Training and certification in private pilot, instrument rating and commercial pilot will be offered with all licenses and ratings having full certification and accreditation from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

"The flexibility of this academy allows students to first pursue their workforce training needs, if that is their main goal, but also provides them a path to continue or pursue other degree options with the university if desired," UCA President Houston Davis said in the news release. "Many students may prioritize securing their commercial pilot certificate to immediately work in the industry while other students will choose to attend UCA for another degree but also want to do their pilot training while in college. This innovative program is a win for the students, the industry, the city, the state and the university."

Students will have ground school opportunities beginning in March with flight training thereafter, according to UCA. The academy will be based at Conway Regional Airport and utilize state-of-the-art planes and technology, including Tecnam airplanes with all-glass cockpits.

The collaboration between the university, city and airport is an example of "what makes Conway special," Conway Mayor Bart Castleberry said in the news release. "We're confident the UCA Aviation Academy will bring more students" to UCA and enhance the visibility of the airport.

A private license, which requires a minimum of 35 hours, permits the holder to act as the pilot in command of an aircraft during visual day and night conditions, while a commercial license -- which requires 190 hours of accumulated flight time, including specific hours of experience in several areas such as night flying, cross country and enhanced maneuvers -- allows a pilot to fly for hire under certain conditions, according to UCA. Instrument rating, which also requires a minimum of 35 hours, teaches greater mastery of aircraft control, systems and instrumentation and allows the holder to fly by sole reference to the aircraft's instruments.

UCA has been discussing a program like this for several years, but talks with the city and other partners took on greater urgency last summer, according to Davis. The initial plan is to have 10-20 students participating when ground school activities commence in March 2024, and "we do expect that cohorts will grow from there."

Less than 48 hours after the school announced the program last week, more than 750 potential students had already filled out the form on the university's website -- https://uca.edu/aviation/ -- seeking more information about it, he added. "There is very strong interest."