June 24--TERRE HAUTE -- By Brian M. Boyce
Local flight students might launch their careers from a different runway beginning this fall.
Officials confirmed Thursday that the flight school agreement between Indiana State University's aviation program and the Terre Haute International Airport-Hulman Field will expire July 31 without renewal. Students can continue their training at Brown's Flying School in Sky King Airport on the city's northside. Officials explained in years prior the two airports had shared the university business.
Harry Minniear, chair of the ISU aviation technology department, was in Montana on Thursday afternoon and North Dakota the day prior, checking out other flight schools for ideas.
"Sky King Airport will be our sole contractor beginning this fall," he said in a telephone interview, emphasizing the Terre Haute International Airport has fulfilled all of its contractual obligations to date and is simply opting against a continuation of their flight school.
Airport director Dennis Wiss said that afternoon that operating the flight school has been "a huge financial burden," and one the facility simply can't afford to maintain. The airport has operated a flight school there for at least 10 years, he said.
"It has cost the airport authority a lot of money, and it's not that we don't want another flight school. We want a flight school, and if ISU wants to start their own, or another entity wants to start their own, we would welcome them with open arms. But we should not be doing it anymore," he said, adding ISU students have been the primary customer base of the program.
But running the flight school there has resulted in about $585,000 in losses between 2008 and 2010, he said. Among the many factors he cited is a decrease in students. Peak years brought between 150 and 200 students, but last year participation was about 110.
"We have no idea and really they have no idea," Wiss said of projected participation, noting students could number 10 to 100. The school took in 48 new students last year, he said, but it's still nothing compared to the profitable years. "In years past, not even close," he said.
Wiss said the airport has been trying to sell its Fixed Base Operator (FBO) for four years with no successful buyers, and part of that package had been the flight school. The cost of the planes themselves was a burden, he said, noting that at one point the airport authority was paying $15,000 per month in related loans. Running a flight school for university students means negligible activity for three sections of the year when school is out, but the payments and insurance costs remain the same, he said. After selling off a number of the planes, Wiss said the airport got the payments down to about $5,500 a month, but it's still just too much.
"What the board said is our core focus should be running an airport, not necessarily running a flight school," he said, explaining economic development and facility operations need to take precedence.
Wiss dismissed fuel prices as a factor in the issue, but agreed that flying is not a cheap hobby. Plane rental for a Cessna 152 is about $98 per hour plus instructor fees. The next model up is about $125 per hour plus fees, and the rates get higher with model, he said.
Still, if someone would want to establish a flying school at the airport, Wiss said they'd be happy to help.
Minniear said his program is in a very preliminary stage of fact-finding regarding that possibility. An ISU graduate who owns a flight school in Montana is one source of information, and he plans to get more data on whether it's feasible for the university to start its own school.
"We've had a lot of great things happen for us this year," he said of the aviation technology program. The Terre Haute International Airport's decision against renewal wasn't a big surprise, he said, adding the two entities have had a good, long relationship.
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