Champions and partnerships see Professional Flight program takeoff

SEMO holds a press conference to announce the Professional Pilot program.

Editor's note: The following story has been updated to correct Ken Jackson's title and the specific degree offered in the SEMO aviation program.

Ken Jackson, of Dexter, knows high school students and their educators in Southeast Missouri. He served as state supervisor of instruction with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

Jackson is also a pilot.

This passion for education and flight serves him well. As newly appointed Director of aviation operations at Southeast Missouri State University, Jackson will coordinate operations, promotional activities and student services for Southeast’s Professional Pilot degree program and the Bachelor of Science in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) degree.

“I didn’t realize there were so many opportunities in aviation,” said Jackson. “Graduates of Southeast’s program [with a Bachelor of Science in Professional Pilot] will be prepared to work as a commercial pilot for hire and ready for a variety of opportunities.”

Jackson said he believes students in the Southeast Missouri State University service area will have the same opportunity to attain aviation as students careers at other schools with such programs.

“While COVID-19 has created significant challenges in the aviation community, I do believe, in the long-term, there will be a demand for all things aviation — engineers, A&P mechanics, pilots, air-traffic control, flight instructors, security, airport managers, teachers, military, law enforcement,” he said. “Currently, Missouri has more than 100 aviation-related businesses.”

Regional, national and international demand for professional pilots continues to grow as the number of commercial pilots steadily declines, the result of many reaching mandatory retirement age thresholds.

“Southeast can play an important role in reversing this trend”, he said. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, expected growth for pilots nationally is approximately 4.6% through 2028. In this area, in particular, many pilots on average are at least 55 years old. Data from Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. (EMSI) shows that in 2018, just 63 candidates graduated from pilot programs in this region while there were 1,218 pilot job openings.

“We have intelligent, capable students in the Southeast Missouri area who may want to explore this career path with learning opportunities close to home,” he said.

Jackson says Boeing’s 20-Year Pilot and Technician Outlook has forecast huge opportunities for pilots and other aviation professionals.

Director of Aviation at Southeast Missouri Ken Jackson.

“The Cape Girardeau Regional Airport now has direct flights to Chicago and has experienced increased passenger travel, until COVID-19,” he said. “Over the next three years there will be many pilot retirements and with fewer pilots transitioning from the military, the need for new pilots will be increasing.

“I believe that students will demonstrate interest in the program,” Jackson said. “In fact, Cape Girardeau Public School’s Career & Technology Center provides students from sending school districts the opportunity to participate in a course called ‘Basic Flight’. These students will complete their ground school instruction and pass the FAA exam, but will not accumulate enough flight hours to complete the check-ride.”

The Professional Pilot Bachelor of Science program will require a minimum of 121 credit hours of instruction, including 42 hours of general education coursework. Southeast plans to launch the program with minimal expense by structuring it similarly to other professional pilot programs. Under the program, Southeast will contract with a flight company that will own the aircraft and be responsible for maintaining them per contractual guidelines and FAA standards.

“I’ve participated in a number of presentations with parents and students on visit days and I know sending a child to college is an investment. Add another 70 to 75,000 dollars for an aviation program may look cost prohibitive. But knowing what I do about salary potential for aviation and the demand, it would not take long for a young person to repay that debt.”

And there are other avenues to help fund a pilot program says Jackson. Southeast is among the top 10 schools in the nation in its size to be given the status — Military Friendly, Gold Status, Top-Ten. This allows Southeast students a higher chance for military scholarships.

Jackson, who learned to fly in Dexter, feels, for the serious student, it is an accelerated path for a higher six-figure salary.

“I met up with a young man at the local airport in Dexter. At age 25, he is a pilot for Republic Airways. “Talking about his flight experience, he pulls out his phone and says he’s flying his plane into Reagan International Airport in Washington DC. And I thought, how impressive is that. He said, had it not been for the pandemic, he’d be a captain with Republic.

“Those of us in aviation like to say, ‘a mile of highway will take you one mile, but a mile of runway can take you anywhere.’”

Helping students find the runway is Jackson’s new quest.