San Juan College pursues helicopter flight degree

College officials plan to partner with a company to run the program

Joshua Kellogg
A street sweeper cleans a hangar at the Four Corners Regional Airport in Farmington on Friday. San Juan College may house its new helicopter flight training program at the hangar, which was vacated by Great Lakes Airlines.
  • San Juan College officials are working to launch a helicopter flight training program by next spring.
  • Students who graduate from the two-year program would earn an associate degree in aviation technology.
  • The college or its flight school partner plan to lease hangar and classroom space at the Farmington airport.
  • Enrollment will be mostly veterans because VA benefits cover tuition and fees for helicopter flight training.

FARMINGTON — San Juan College officials are pursuing a new degree program for helicopter flight training that could get off the ground as early as next spring.

During a presentation to the college board at Tuesday’s work session, Vice President for Learning Barbara Ake and Vice President for Administrative Services Ed DesPlas updated the board on progress college staff have made toward offering an associate of applied science degree in aviation technology.

Discussions about a potential helicopter flight training degree have been underway for a number of years.

Ake and college President Toni Pendergrass gave a presentation to the board on Jan. 6, 2015, about a meeting they had in December 2014 with representatives from Guidance Aviation about opening a possible location in Farmington.

Right now, the college is developing a request for proposals document for companies interested in partnering with the school to operate the program, DesPlas said. The request could be issued in August or September.

After that, the board could vote on the proposal at its Oct. 4 meeting. If the board approves the measure, DesPlas said the program could start in the Spring 2017 semester.

Mike Lewis, manager of the Four Corners Reginal Airport in Farmington, stands on Friday inside the hangar where San Juan College may house a new helicopter flight training program it is developing.

The program would be similar to an airplane pilot program that San Juan College and Mesa Airlines operated from 1989 to 2010.

Depending on negotiations, the flight school partner would likely be responsible for operating flight simulators and two to four helicopters at the Four Corners Regional Airport, as well as assisting in recruiting adjunct flight instructors for the first several semesters that the program operates, according to DesPlas’ presentation.

College staff are working to develop the curriculum for the program, which will need to be approved by the New Mexico Higher Education Department, the Federal Aviation Administration and the New Mexico branch of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The college or its flight school partner will lease or sublease hangar and classroom space at the Farmington airport, according to DesPlas' presentation.

Airport manager Mike Lewis said a large hangar recently vacated by Great Lake Airlines would provide more than enough space for the program.

He also said the program could contribute to economic development in the area by bringing new employees and students to the area.

San Juan College is developing a program to offer an associate degree in aviation technology, which would be housed at the Four Corners Regional Airport, pictured on Friday.

Enrollment in the program would primarily consist of veterans because benefits offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs cover tuition and program fees for helicopter flight training, DesPlas said. The projected tuition cost for the two-year program is about $175,000.

The VA benefits can be used if no more than 85 percent of the enrolled students are veterans. San Juan College is seeking a waiver to that rule that would extend the benefits even if more than 85 percent of the enrolled students are veterans.

Changes to VA benefits set to go into effect on Aug. 1 will benefit San Juan College, DesPlas said.

The new rules state that for a flight training program to receive funding from the VA for tuition and fees, it must be administered by a higher learning institute, instead of a vocational program or third-party vendor, Ake said.

DesPlas said that change will impact private flight schools and potentially put San Juan College in a more competitive position.

"Because of the change in the veterans’ rules and benefits, the market has changed and made it much more attractive to us, because there is not as much competition out there now," DesPlas said.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.