WMU colleges co-pilot federal aviation ‘Center for Excellence’


Part of the airplane fleet managed by WMU's College of Aviation. Courtesy WMU

A proud bronco is joining a national flock of aviators to move the entire industry forward.

The Federal Aviation Administration has announced Western Michigan University will be one of 12 universities collaborating to create The Center for Excellence Partnership to Enhance General Aviation Safety, Accessibility and Sustainability.  

PEGASAS’ goal is to team the FAA with “a national network of world-class institutions of higher education and industry partners,” according to its mission statement.

WMU's College of Aviation and College of Engineering and Applied Sciences will both be involved with PEGASAS, which will use its facilities and aircraft in Battle Creek and its engineering campus, said Raymond Thompson, associate dean of WMU’s College of Aviation.

The FAA will fund PEGASAS research projects with $500,000 a year for at least five years, Thompson said. By the end of the decade, the center hopes to become self-sustaining through other streams of revenue brought in from research requests from airline companies or other businesses.

Thompson said he is interested in the currently undecided process to determine which institution is handed various research projects.

“I don’t anticipate us doing $500,000 divided by 12,” he said. “We all have different strengths, but as long as we’re all getting chances to participate, it’ll work out.”

Aviation-related business could form around the WMU facilities, he said, citing the economic infrastructure that grew around North Carolina State University, Duke University and University of North Carolina — nicknamed “The Research Triangle.”

“It’s more of a scientific research collaboration … a consortia. This creates a resource for aviation and studying here,” he said. “We’d like to see a greater aviation presence — a knowledge hub — create synergy. The idea is to generate the knowledge and also talent pools. It will certainly help and retain more aviation business to West Michigan. The governor’s indicated it’s an economic development interest of his for the state.”

David Powell, dean of WMU’s College of Aviation, said WMU’s contribution to PEGASAS is a three-legged stool made up of excellent faculty, aviation experience and state-of-the-art technology.

“We have the most sophisticated aircraft and simulation in collegiate training. We have a specialized flight-management system we use in both simulators and real planes, and, right now, I think we’re the only college in the nation that has that,” Powell said. “According to some critics, we have the best college aviation training program in the nation. Most people don’t realize we’re the third largest.”

Of the 700 students in WMU’s aviation program, many will settle in the West Michigan area, he said.

“We have a self-driven program that delivers jobs into the regional aviation community,” Powell said. “If you fly into Grand Rapids, chances are one of your pilots would be one of our graduates.”  

Those graduates will be useful, given that the number of pilots being produced in the U.S. has dropped, said Powell. Over the past 20 years, corporate greed starved the airline industry, he said, leaving behind “a world littered with dead airlines.”

Powell believes he’s the only ex-airline executive running a collegiate aviation program. He started his pilot career flying F-16s in the Air Force before becoming a chief pilot and instructor at United Airlines.

The next few years, united under PEGASAS, could be the industry’s chance to soar again, he said.

“We’ve got to start thinking in a blend of long-term and short-term, instead of only short-term,” Powell said. “We’re bleeding this country dry.”

The PEGASAS institutions are led by Georgia Institute of Technology, Ohio State University and Purdue University, where the center will be administratively housed.

WMU will serve as an affiliate institute, along with Arizona State University, Hampton University, Kent State University, University of Minnesota, Duluth, and Southern Illinois University, Carbondale.

The remaining core institutions will be made up of Florida Institute of Technology, Iowa State University and Texas A&M University. 

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