University Aviation Program Filling Sky-High Demand for Pilots

EAR | Kearney Regional Airport

There’s a thrill with aviation. It’s hard to describe. It’s a fun feeling. It’s an enjoyment. It’s one of those things you can see yourself doing for a long time.

Jacob Barth, UNK Aviation Program Student

Over the last five years, airlines across the country have been on the hunt for qualified pilots. To entice potential candidates, salaries for entry-level pilots have almost doubled and hiring incentives have increased. The aviation program at the University of Nebraska at  Kearney is doing its part to fill this demand. 


The school is one of only two in the state with an aviation program and currently has 60 enrolled students. Although it is on the smaller side, the program’s director, Terry Gibbs, sees this as a strength as it creates a better learning environment. Gibbs, who has led the program since 2001, says it’s one of the university’s hidden gems. In addition to small class sizes, the school’s rural location makes it an efficient place to train. With only one flight instructor on staff, they often partner with licensed instructors from Big Air, who are often alumni of the program. 


On campus, a Redbird Flight Simulator helps prepare students for a variety of different environments. Purchased in 2015, the simulator can create a range of flying conditions and can match controls for a variety of aircraft. The simulator has become an important tool for teaching students how to properly handle emergency situations like engine failure. With its realistic views and dual controls, students and instructors can record and replay flights for review.


Job placement for students is above 90 percent for pilots and is higher for students with certain certifications. Students graduate with around 250 flight hours and typically begin as flight instructors. Although the pilot demand is high, the aviation program at the University of Nebraska at Kearney is helping one flight hour at a time.