CEDAR CITY – Southern Utah University celebrated the growth of their recently acquired aviation program Saturday night by unveiling 17 new aircraft — 10 Cirrus SR-20 airplanes and seven Robinson R-44 helicopters — and two flight simulators.
The equipment was on public display for several hours during the “Red Rally” event that gave the community an opportunity to have a behind-the-scenes peek into the University’s aviation program.
Cedar City Mayor Maile Wilson also cut a red ribbon to formally commemorate SUU’s aviation program.
“What it really means is it’s a step forward in our commitment to the students,” SUU aviation program Executive Director Mike Mower said. “SUU’s commitment to its students is amazing and that’s perfectly demonstrated right here. The University as a whole has really supported this program.”
SUU President Scott Wyatt echoed Mower’s sentiments stating the University is committed to “putting pilots in cockpits all over the country and perhaps the world.”
Wyatt’s words are encouraging to Ha’aheo Carpenter who, while talking about passion for flying, continued to look over at the shiny red and white airplanes detailed with SUU insignia — and smile.
The Desert Hills High School student said she waited all day to travel from St. George to Cedar City to see the aircraft.
“I’ve been smiling all day,” she said. “I can’t stop smiling. This was so exciting for me.”
Carpenter has wanted to be a pilot since the first time she rode in an airplane when she was 11 years old. Ha’aheo Carpenter’s mom, Angela Carpenter, said her daughter came home from that first trip asking her parents to buy her a flight simulator.
“It was expensive,” Angela Carpenter said. “So, we told her she needed to earn the money herself because we figured if it was that important to her she would raise the money herself and she would appreciate it more.”
And within two years, Ha’aheo Carpenter earned enough from babysitting to buy her first flight simulator. Now 17-years-old, her passion for airplanes and dream of being a pilot only continues to grow.
“I’ve always known since that first airplane ride that that’s what I wanted to do and I’ve never changed my mind,” she said.
Two years ago, Ha’aheo Carpenter joined the Air Force junior ROTC, her mom said, which has given her daughter ample opportunities to learn about her chosen career.
Ha’aheo Carpenter will be one of around 250-300 students to enter the university’s aviation program in fall 2018 who will have a chance to eventually fly the new aircraft. She plans to go to work for Southwest Airlines when she graduates, an opportunity Iron County Commissioner Mike Bleak said he supports.
“This is great,” Bleak said. “I think having the aviation program at SUU is a really great opportunity for our local high school students and for the community and it will allow our local students to have more opportunities for higher-paying jobs once they graduate from college.”
SUU initially partnered with a private company, Upper Limit Aviation, in 2013 to begin offering the professional pilot degree.
The two organizations later came under fire following an article in the Los Angeles Times claiming the flight schools, along with several others, had found a “loophole” in the GI bill allowing them to exploit the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Wyatt denied any wrongdoing but suspended admission into the aviation program until the VA requirements could be met.
The VA had changed their reporting methods and, in doing so, pushed the university over the limits for veteran-to-private-paying student ratio, Wyatt said at the time. Despite the controversy, Wyatt maintained that both Upper Limit Aviation and SUU had acted in good faith to ensure compliance with VA instructions.
SUU took the program over last year severing all ties to ULA.
The program is now entirely self-funded using its own money to purchase the new aircraft, Mower said.
While Mower would not elaborate on the equipment’s actual cost, a memorandum sent last March to the Utah Board of Regents estimates the cost up to $11.5 million. The document was sent by board Commissioner David L. Buhler, anticipating the university purchasing between 16-28 aircraft for that price.
A year ago, SUU was renting and leasing their planes and helicopters. The new ones will be paid off in seven years.
“We found out that we can have better quality aircraft and safer aircraft,” Wyatt said, “and it cost(s) less for the students.”
Mower said Saturday the old equipment was not only costing the school more money but dangerous.
“We were operating aircraft that were 20 to 30 years old and they were breaking down,” Mower said, “not to mention they were costing us a lot of money. These aircraft are not costing us any more than the old ones were and they’re new. In fact, they will cost us less in the long run because we won’t have the expensive upkeep that the older equipment requires.”
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