A lot has changed for the aviation program at Southern Illinois University (SIU) since NBAA visited the Carbondale, IL campus in 2009. The classrooms and hangars that were sprawled miles apart have moved under one roof. In 2012, SIU completed the 187,000-square-foot Transportation Education Center, right on the flight line at Southern Illinois Airport (MDH).
The school’s 40 trainers are now housed next to maintenance labs, simulators, test cells and classrooms. The trainers are mostly Cessna singles, with 310s and Piper Arrows used for complex instruction. Many aircraft have been outfitted with modern avionics, so students can train on steam gauges and glass.
“Aviation is one of the larger programs at SIU, with over 600 students,” explained Mike Burgener, chair of the department of aviation technologies. “Since NBAA’s last story, we also started an online bachelor’s degree for people working in the industry.”
More changes are coming. Starting in 2022, the facility will house a new School of Aviation, which will bring together the departments of flight, aviation management and aviation technologies. In addition, the university will offer a new Master of Aviation Management online designed for mid-career professionals.
“It’s a testament to our students and our instructors that they can go onto executive transport, where they’re flying real-life passengers as a student.”
Ken Bro Chief Flight Instructor and Program Coordinator, Southern Illinois University
Even through all this expansion, some things have not changed.
“We still give students practical, hands-on experience,” said Ken Bro, chief flight instructor and program coordinator.
One of those hands-on opportunities is the ability for a few qualified flight students to fly real missions on the university’s two executive transport airplanes under the supervision of a professional pilot and faculty member.
Said Bro, “It’s a testament to our students and our instructors that they can go onto executive transport, where they’re flying real-life passengers as a student.”
SIU operates a Cessna 340 and a Cessna 421 for administrator and faculty flights between the university system’s three main campuses, to medical clinics around the state and to other destinations.
“Executive transport is basically the business aviation side of the university,” said Rachel Piacentini, chief pilot for executive transport. “So it allows us to take university officials to our different campuses. Our passengers could be from the chancellor’s office going to meetings, or from the medical school in Springfield coming down for labs and clinics. It’s a great way to get them there quicker.”
“Executive transport is basically the business aviation side of the university. It allows us to take university officials to our different campuses.”
Rachel Piacentini Southern Illinois University
SIU’s medical school is in Springfield, a three-hour drive from Carbondale. The Edwardsville campus is nearly two hours from either location, but only a 30-minute flight. The medical school also has clinics in Quincy and Decatur. University officials also may travel to Chicago or to academic gatherings out of state.
Piacentini flies about three missions per week, on average, or roughly 200 hours per year. She usually flies the Cessna 340 for its lower operating cost, but when officials need more seats or more range, they take the Cessna 421. Trips are often scheduled a week in advance by an aviation department staff aide. When both aircraft are needed the same day, Bro will fly as instructor on one; Piacentini on the other.
Like the 40 training airplanes, the two executive transport aircraft are maintained at SIU’s full-service repair station on MDH. Each semester, about half a dozen aviation technology students work in the shop part-time, gaining experience under the supervision of full-time maintenance technicians.
Students gain valuable experience on the ground and in the air. On nearly every mission, instructors split the flying duties with a student pilot. They typically switch off, with Piacentini flying one leg as pilot-in-command, then moving to the right seat for the return leg and giving her student the controls. Experiencing both of the flight deck roles helps students learn crew resource management and gives Piacentini an opportunity to observe them in action.
Usually, nine students take the executive transport course each year, racking up more than 20 hours flying time in the high-performance twins. Piacentini manages the students in a similar way as a chief pilot with a small team at a Part 91 operation would. To qualify, students must complete a previous course in commercial multi-engine operations, taught on the Cessna 310s.
“We get them [the students] flying with actual passengers, loading their bags, doing a safety briefing, checking departure weather and all that. So whatever job they go onto after graduation, they now have this real-world experience.”
Rachel Piacentini Southern Illinois University
“That works great, since the Cessna 340 is the perfect step-up from the Cessna 310 and has similar flight characteristics,” said Bro. “And our Cessna 340 is equipped with the same glass panel avionics as our Cessna 310s.”
Once the students are trained on all the 340’s systems, Piacentini gives them the flight instruction they need prior to an actual trip with university officials. The steepest learning curve is passenger etiquette.
“We’re teaching the students how to smooth their movements, dealing with passengers while keeping everything safe,” she said. “By the end of the semester, they’re a lot more comfortable having passengers in the back.”
Students need about 200 hours of flight time before they are ready for the executive transport course. For many of them, it is the first time they will be tested on pilot professionalism, and how that is an integral part of safety.
“We get them flying with actual passengers, loading their bags, doing a safety briefing, checking departure weather and all that,” said Piacentini. “So whatever job they go onto after graduation, they now have this real-world experience.”
Business Aviation Pipeline
Many SIU grads, especially from the aviation technologies program, head to manufacturers, maintenance and repair shops, and completion centers. The airlines are a popular destination for pilots and maintenance technicians, but so is business aviation.
Some students pursue externships or internships with charter operators and Part 91 flight departments. The practical training prepares students well for a career in the industry. About 10% of SIU students are veterans, with extensive hands-on experience, and SIU has six off-campus aviation management programs near military bases around the country.
“I worked for an aerial applicator outside of Chicago, and I was able to get that internship through connections I made here at SIU and the tech program.”
Thomas Koebel Senior Student, Aviation Flight and Technologies Programs, Southern Illinois University
Often, graduates who pursue careers in business aviation made a connection in the industry during their SIU internship.
“I worked for an aerial applicator outside of Chicago, and I was able to get that internship through connections I made here at SIU and the tech program,” said Thomas Koebel, a senior in the aviation flight and technologies programs.
After graduating, Koebel plans to get his A&P license, along with his flight ratings and endorsements. “Ideally I’d like to find somewhere that I can be a pilot and contribute to the maintenance side,” said Koebel. “And from what I’ve heard, business aviation and charter operations are good for both.”
The aviation management curriculum at SIU is useful preparation for students interested in Part 91 flight operations, where pilots and maintenance technicians often take on ancillary responsibilities and management roles. Now, SIU is preparing to offer master’s level training for mid-career professionals.
Working professionals will be able to complete the new online master’s in one year. With some dual credit, graduating seniors can complete the program in nine months. The coursework is asynchronous, so working professionals can pursue the degree on their own time.
“We started with a clean slate when we created the master’s program,” said Bro. “We wanted students to be able to complete it as quickly as possible, because the market needs master’s level workers.”
Hoping to Expand Internships with Business Aviation
Many aviation students at Southern Illinois University (SIU) pursue internships and externships during
their undergraduate study. While the school has established relationships with several airlines (United Airlines is headquartered in Chicago) and manufacturers, the faculty is looking to expand opportunities with the business aviation industry.
“We’re really interested in partnerships with Part 91 flight departments, so that our students can experience not only the piloting or maintenance side, but the management side of aviation as well,” said Ken Bro, chief flight instructor and program coordinator.
Internships last a semester or longer, while externships are much shorter, often done the week of spring break. Both offer students on-the-job training and a talent pipeline to the local aviation industry.
Each year, several students seek out positions with business aircraft operators and service providers. A few recent SIU graduates who had internships in business aviation have found jobs with local flight departments.
“Those opportunities in business aviation depend on the students taking initiative and networking, but we would welcome partnerships that provided a steady stream of internship spaces,” said Bro. “That’s really important, and Part 91 experience is an area we’d like to explore more broadly.”
Aircraft: One Cessna 340 one Cessna 421
Base: Based at Southern Illinois Airport (MDH)
Personnel: One executive transport pilot and flight instructor.