Poised to soar
Aerospace enrollment, research prestige and industry pacts fly high when aviation world needs them most
Jim Higgins and Kent Lovelace went to Washington D.C., in 2009, on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense to present findings from their first pilot-supply forecast.
The country was in a recession and many pilots were furloughed. At the time, none of the aviation industry’s stakeholders—airlines and military branches alike—was worried about a shortage.
“We were laughed out of the room,” said Higgins, UND professor and chair of aviation. “We were laughed at like there was no tomorrow.”
They stood by their findings, and two years later another forecast was published. The message was consistent.
By this time, the regional airlines started seeing the signs. Pilots began aging out, and the rate of recruitment wasn’t keeping up with the exodus. Airlines started coming to UND for advice.
“They were spot on,” said UND Associate Dean Elizabeth Bjerke, about her counterparts in the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. “Since then, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve presented it. It’s research that’s in high demand and we have constant requests to update it.”
Almost 10 years later, Lovelace, the school’s director of aviation industry relations, and Higgins’ research has been vindicated. The two now find UND Aerospace in a “perfect storm”: Hiring top-notch aviators is critical to the aviation industry, opportunities in air traffic management and unmanned operations are surging and enrollment has risen exponentially.
In other words, UND Aerospace not only remains strong, but it is needed now more than ever.
“We’ve had a record year for aviation,” said Paul Lindseth, dean of UND Aerospace. “We’ve flown a record number of flight hours, by far the largest volume of any collegiate aviation program worldwide. We’ve maintained the safety of our flight training while facing flight instructor and faculty shortages. It’s a huge success for us.”
Assistant Dean Ken Polovitz, who’s been with the school for 30-plus years, says there’s never really been a dull moment.
“There’s always something going on,” he said. “A new adventure, venture or new technology – we don’t stay home. If we hadn’t established relationships over the past several decades around the world, we wouldn’t be ready for the industry when it has its needs.”
The pilot-supply forecasting by UND led to a boom in career pathway opportunities for aspiring aviators.
In 2018, alone, UND partnered with major airlines such as United and Delta and Sun Country among others – remarkable milestones that recognize the University for its established standard of excellence. FedEx Express’ $500,000 contribution, through the Purple Runway Aviation Scholarship Program, was among the first from a major airline to the school. It directly incentivizes students to stay at UND as flight instructors.
Higgins pointed to student applicant numbers to show how the pathways have impacted the school.
“We’ve more than doubled ourselves,” he said. “In 2015, we had 341 applicants for our commercial aviation program around this time in January. Today, it’s 830. For our admissions, the scale is similar. Our deposits are way up, and that’s just in one of our degrees.”
And when UND Aerospace does well, the ripple effect touches the entire campus, said Jed Shivers, vice president for finance & operations/chief operating officer.
“The significant demand for instruction in aviation keeps not just the John D. Odegard School financially strong, it strengthens the entire University,” Shivers said.
While aviation education is booming, it’s the research that keeps UND at the fore of all things aerospace.
UND Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Tom DiLorenzo noted that “since establishing the first degree in unmanned aircraft systems operations in 2009, UND has positioned itself as the state’s lead in UAS research and technology with the addition of the Research Institute for Autonomous Systems.”
UND’s efforts in autonomous systems also have had pioneering impacts beyond North Dakota.
That was clear on Dec. 21, when the University, along with the Northern Plains UAS Test Site and its industry partners achieved a major milestone with the first-ever successful tests of a beyond-visual-line-of-sight network – a huge step toward integrating UAS in the national airspace system.
UND’s UAS research has attracted industry leaders such as Harris Corporation, Northrup Grumman and General Atomics to the region.
In Space Studies, Pablo de Leon’s work with spacesuit technology is recognized worldwide. The Inflatable Lunar/Mars Habitat, which just completed its sixth mission, is the only of its kind on a university campus.
“Looking forward, I think that research will expand even more as space travel becomes more pronounced,” Lindseth said.
Bjerke says she loves talking to faculty about the exciting research happening throughout the school.
“If someone has a great idea, they’re going to be fully supported,” Bjerke said. “Everyone takes their own initiatives to do great things, whether it’s outreach in the community, pursuing research or advancing the way they teach their classes.”
UND President Mark Kennedy said the benefits of having UND Aerospace as part of the University community is immeasurable — from important research to vibrant academic programs that intersect other Colleges to the establishment of a more diverse student body.
“UND Aerospace’s 50 years of excellence in aerospace studies has never been in higher demand,” Kennedy said. “Its wide portfolio of instruction and research in manned and unmanned aviation, and all of the activities that support both, ensures its continued vitality for years to come.”