Purdue shows off technology as it hopes to recruit and help fill ongoing pilot shortage

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue University is showing off its unique aviation technology.  

Walk into the Niswonger Aviation Technology Building and you’ll find three large aviation simulators for the school’s students. Among them is the A320, a full-motion “Hawker 900XP” – which mimics movement in flight – and a 737, which replicates most of Boeing’s fleet. 

This is very rare,” said Mike Suckow, a clinical associate professor and assistant department head in the Department of Aviation Technology. “In the collegiate environment, there are maybe five universities in the country that would have this level of technology.” 

Officials at Purdue believe the high level of technology has helped launch their aviation students into the commercial flight industry. Suckow said many of Purdue’s aviation students have gotten jobs right after graduation. 

“Many of our students are going right to the major airlines,” he said.

One student hoping to become a commercial pilot soon is Adam Dunham. The master’s student and flight instructor said he didn’t have any background in aviation until he attended Purdue.

“Four years later, I know how to operate an A320 aircraft,” he said as he tested out the simulator. “You’re not only learning how to move a stick and rudder, but you’re also learning how the airplanes work, the systems behind the scenes. How does an airline work? How do you get the ground crew to be able to push the plane back while communicating with air traffic control?”

Dunham said he has practiced smooth flights, but also flights that have mimicked emergencies, like a fire on board or an engine failure.

“With the pilot shortage coming around and the high demand of pilots coming around, it’s easy to rush through training and say I’m going to get to this point and I’m going to fly the airplane. We don’t only teach you how to fly, we teach you scenarios, the systems behind the aircraft, and really providing a safe experience for us as well as the future passengers,” Dunham explained.

Right now, Purdue has about 103 freshmen who have declared their major as aviation. Last year, there were 38 students and the year prior, 78. The school is recruiting for their program hoping to help fill what has been described as a severe pilot shortage.

“We’re also working very hard with middle schools and high schools to increase the base. The industry has responded with great compensation packages and they have done their job. Now, we need to figure out how to improve awareness for students that this is a viable career path,” Suckow said.

Several big airlines have told CBS4 they are hiring, including Delta Airlines, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines.

“Pilot hiring is really a boom or bust,” Suckow said. “It’s very cyclical. There are many years where there is extreme hiring. They ride out their seniority and then you get the extreme retirements. We’re in that phase of retirements.”

Purdue Professor Jason Cutter said their program is also focused on mentally preparing pilots.

“Flying the airplane, physically flying the airplane, is a very small part of the job. It’s all of that other stuff that goes along with it like dealing with passengers, knowing how to deal with the crew members, being able to support the crew members,” he said. “One of the changes since 9/11 has been the cockpit door stays locked. So, if something is occurring mid-flight, how we react to it now as a captain is very different than how we would have dealt with it 30 years ago. It’s a stressful time for everybody in the industry.”

Cutter said when he was a captain, there were times he would get out of his seat and approach the individual in question himself. Now, captains cannot do that.

“Usually, they responded to that authority figure of the captain. Now, that option is off the table. We trust our cabin crew to deal with it instead.”

TSA confirms flight attendants are taking self-defense courses

As of Sept. 21, 2021, the FAA reported there had been more than 4,000 unruly passengers since the beginning of the year. More than 3,000 of those were mask-related incidents, stemming from the Federal travel mask mandate requiring anyone in airports, on planes, trains and other public transit to wear a face covering.

CBS4 spoke with the Transportation Security Administration about what it is doing to curb the ongoing tension. The TSA Great Lakes Region spokesperson, Jessica Mayle, confirmed about 3,000 flight attendants have opted to take a self-defense class to assist them while in-flight.

“It’s a contained environment up there. You don’t have access to a lot of the tools that we would have on the ground in a threatening situation, so we just want to make sure flight attendants are able to protect themselves appropriately,” she explained.

Mayle didn’t think any Indiana-based flight attendants had taken the course in 2021.

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