A decade ago, the thought of Northwestern Michigan College adding a helicopter training program would have been laughable. The college had an aviation program that couldn’t stand — or fly — on its own and was being subsidized by other NMC students and taxpayers to the tune of $350,000 in 2007 alone.
Worse, aviation was a program with no mission. There was no compelling reason for NMC to offer flight training, since there were private training firms in Traverse City, and program graduates needed additional training to get a commercial pilot’s license. It was a mess.
But in 2007 the college started to turn things around. It purchased 11 Cessna 72 SP single-engine planes from a downstate firm for $2.8 million in a deal that called for the company to buy back all the planes at various times for $2.35 million. NMC also put a new focus on managing and marketing the program. General fund support fell to just $70,000.
By 2012 the program was luring students from China, Great Britain and India; international students were expected to log 1,500 hours of flying time that year and enrollment was soaring.
So it was encouraging to see NMC build on that continued success with the launch of a new helicopter flight training program this year that it expects will help students expand their portfolios and career opportunities.
Like the turnaround in the aviation program, the new helicopter program depends heavily on a partnership with a private firm that will bring expertise and the most important element of all — a helicopter.
TC Helicopters of Traverse City will supply a flight simulator, a Robinson R-44 helicopter, and training staff. TC Helicopters offers sightseeing tours in Traverse City, photo flights and aerial surveys, The company hopes some NMC grads will eventually join the firm as flight instructors or pilots.
NMC’s Director of Aviation Aaron Cook said the program will help students make their way into a booming sector of the aviation industry.
Cook said helicopters are being used to inspect windmill farms and power lines, and in the oil and gas industry as transportation to offshore drilling platforms.
NMC now offers several aviation career options, including fixed-wing instruction, seaplane and flight instructor training, and helicopters. Flight time and simulator training rounds out the program.
The college has 120 aviation students, and six have signed up for the first semester of helicopters. There are just five college-affiliated flight schools in Michigan, and NMC’s is the only one offering rotor-wing or helicopter training.
Given the aviation program’s reversal of fortune, adding helicopter training makes sense for both students and the college.