By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
East Hawaii may one day soon serve as a runway for isle students looking to spread their wings and dive into a career in international aviation.
On Friday, legislators approved $100,000 to fund early efforts to launch an international flight training center and advanced aviation degree program at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. While the sum legislators agreed to isn’t as high as effort organizer Kai Kahele was looking for, it will be put to good use, he said Monday.
“Sure, it wasn’t all that we wanted,” he said. “But our challenge is to come back and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to make this work.’ We’re going to revise our budget, reanalyze it, and see how best to maximize $100,000. I think it’s a lot of money, and I think we can do a lot with it.”
The son of state Sen. Gil Kahele, D-Hilo, who proposed the legislation, Kai says his interest in securing the funding is purely an effort to give back to his community, will not end up benefiting him personally, and therefore doesn’t represent a conflict of interest.
“I’m a local boy. I’m really proud to say I graduated from Hilo High, I learned to fly at Hilo International Airport, I was a member of the Hawaii National Guard, and now I’m a commercial airline pilot at Hawaiian Airlines,” he said. “I’ve got a job. I just hope that one day other kids can look at that and say ‘I can do the same thing.’”
As chairman of Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s 10-member aviation exploratory committee, Kahele was charged last year with overseeing studies and reporting on the potential impacts of establishing a “top caliber collegiate aviation program in Hawaii,” according to testimony he provided earlier in the session.
“The committee found that the proposed aviation program in Hilo would be on the forefront of a forecasted global pilot shortage in the next 15 years. An estimated one million jobs will need to be created, of which 500,000 jobs will be to fill the commercial pilot vacuums created due to massive retirements and the expansion of a global aircraft fleet. As world demand for pilots and other highly skilled aviation personnel increases and the imminent introduction of unmanned aircraft systems or into the civilian aviation airspace structure, Hawaii is in an excellent position to take advantage of that global demand.
“The proposed programs will also assist in the diversification of the state’s economy and provide an opportunity to gain a reputation as a world class aviation training center servicing the Pacific Rim and beyond.”
The agreement arrived at on Friday afternoon would likely fund in part the hiring of a program coordinator and a technical support staff member to help get the program off the ground, Kahele said. UH had originally estimated that the personnel costs and associated overhead costs would total $350,000.
The positions are just part of a much larger plan that organizers hope will continue to receive support from the Legislature in the years ahead, Kai Kahele said. That plan could include the building of a $10-$15 million facility on a 20-acre parcel near the entrance of the Hilo airport, complete with flight simulators, classrooms, and even aircraft that would be used to train students as pilots, mechanics and other aviation-related workers.
The program would be a partnership between UH, Hawaii Community College, and Hilo International Airport, a facility which gives Hilo an advantage in international aviation.
“We have everything on the Big Island that makes this a good fit for aviation, including the airport,” Gil Kahele explained last week, shortly before the funding was added to the budget. “The airport is currently underutilized, and this would make use of the facility. With the college of aviation, we’re just beginning the journey.”
On Monday, Gil Kahele again expressed his enthusiasm for the program, and said that while the amount of money appropriated wasn’t as much as he had hoped for, the fact that the program got anything at all was a reason to celebrate.
“Having seen my son fulfill his dream, I want to see that happen for other kids and people interested in aviation. We’ll do anything to make that happen.”
Richard C. Lim, director of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, told legislators during the session that the center would fill a much-needed role in the state and region.
“DBEDT recognizes that the rapidly growing demand for pilots and maintenance workers in the aviation industry cannot be met with the existing training capacity nationwide; and that Hilo, by virtue of its unique meteorological conditions, underutilized land at Hilo International Airport, low air traffic activity, state-of-the-art air controller and radar facilities, and excellent training resources at both UHH and HCC, is ideally located to support the proposed flight training center,” he said.
UH Chancellor Donald Straney described the program as a unique one: “Currently, there are no programs in the state of Hawaii that can prepare students for this high level of academic and practical training,” he said. “This proposal will help address the future needs of our island economy. UH-Hilo views our partnership and collaboration with Hawaii Community College and other community college campuses as an important component in being able to successfully provide higher education and career options to the people of our Hawaii Island.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.