After 50 years of training pilots at the Greeley airport, Aims Community College’s aviation training program is taking off for a more bustling site in Larimer County in a bid to help ease a worldwide shortage of airline pilots.
But the plan has run into turbulence from Weld County Commissioners, who issued a harsh rebuke to Aims last week. They reminded the 4,000-enrollment, two-year school that generations of pilots were trained at the Greeley-Weld Regional Airport east of Greeley and that Weld taxpayers have put more than $652 million into the college’s coffers since Aims opened its doors in 1967.
Nearly $400 million of those funds came to Aims in just the past 10 years, the commissioners said.
“Taxpaying residents of the district and the county were blindsided by the announcement and quite frankly we are bothered by the statement that ‘this decision for a change in venue was made with the student at the heart of it,’” said the letter, signed by Commissioner Chair Steve Moreno.
“We encourage you to remember your foundation and to carefully consider how and where you decide to utilize the funding Weld County taxpayers have provided to their institution,” Moreno said. “We urge you to reconsider your decision and bring the program and financial benefit back to the citizens of Weld County who have supported you for over 50 years.”
But Aims officials aren’t likely to change their minds. They acknowledge that nearly 900 Aims students have gone through training at the Greeley-Weld facility and that the airport provided a solid start for the program. They say classroom instruction in aviation will continue at Aims in Greeley.
But they say the move is based on a feasibility study that said Northern Colorado Regional Airport, a commercial airport located in Loveland near Interstate 25, provides more room to grow the aviation program.
“NoCO Regional Airport better positions Aims Community College … to modernize our aviation educational experience for the student with cutting-edge technology at a commercial airport,” said Ray Peterson, Aims Board of Trustees chairman.
“Although this decision wasn’t easy, it ultimately came down to what is best for the students,” said Mark Hout, Aims board of trustees treasurer.
Operating out of the Northern Colorado facility would allow Aims to own the land rather than lease as it currently does at the Greeley-Weld County Airport, officials said. Aims could spend one-fourth of what could have been spent to build a modern facility at Greeley-Weld, they said.
Aims students train for jobs as airline pilots, air traffic controllers, cargo pilots, government pilots, corporate pilots, search and rescue/medical pilots and flight instructors. Aims offers three associates in applied science degrees related to aviation.
At Northern Colorado Regional Airport, students will get commercial aviation experience as well as access to five newly leased aircraft and a remote air traffic control tower, said Eric Himler, Aims director of aviation. By re-locating, the school could double the number of students enrolled in the program, which now sets at 120.
“Right now, we have to turn students away,” Himler said. “This could be a real opportunity to get more students into cockpits or control towers, which is a huge need now.”
A recent study by Boeing said that 617,000 new airline pilots would be needed worldwide over the next 20 years. The Rand Corporation conducted a similar study in 2015 and found the major airlines would need between 4,000 and 5,000 pilots a year after 2020, and regional airlines would need upwards of 7,000 new pilots a year by 2021.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation said in 2016 that more than 1,400 controllers need to be hired per year over the next five years to meet national airport demands.
At least 70 percent of Aims aviation students come from outside Weld County, so re-locating next to I-25 is well within Aims’ service area, Aims spokeswoman Laura Coale said. The interstate — a federally designated “Highway of National Significance” — will also help draw students to the Aims aviation program, Aims student Todd Lawrence said.
“Just being by that corridor, that’s where everyone is, and they can see what is going on with aviation and that alone will get them interested,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence, 37, decided to become a pilot after he was laid off from his previous sales job. He says Aims is giving him the best chance to launch his new career.
“It’s been amazing here and the need is out there,” he said. “They have really prepared me well for this.”