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Planes Heading

For more than 50 years, Seneca College has been matriculating commercial pilots with sound academic footing.

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The name of the game for Seneca’s aviation faculty has always been innovation. From its founding in 1968, the backbone of the aviation program at the GTA post-secondary institution was ground-breaking: The aim of the diploma program, originally called Aircraft Pilot Training, was to offer more than just a pilot’s license; Seneca wanted to develop pilots with a sound academic background who could make the snap decisions required of a senior airline pilot. Initially championed by Seneca’s inaugural president, Dr. William T. Newnham, who had served in the Canadian Air Force, the program still holds this goal as a steadfast principle of the program, more than 50 years later. “The nature of our program is to take students with zero flight experience and prepare them for airline flying,” says Michael Hitchins, the school’s chief flight instructor. “We feel we’re also molding leaders. The hands and feet of a pilot are one thing, but the thinking and professionalism is a big part of it as well.”

While this core tenet remains, many other aspects of the program have changed and advanced over the years. The program is now called Aviation and Flight Technology, to start. In 2003, Seneca received approval from Ontario’s Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to offer an aviation technology-based degree program — a first in Canada — so students can now choose from a number of programs under the department banner. In addition to the Bachelor of Aviation Technology degree, Seneca also offers credential programs in Aviation Operations and Aviation Safety. The program was also the first to receive accreditation by the Aviation Accreditation Board International, and the first in Canada to be approved by Transport Canada to run an Integrated Airline Transport Pilot program.

At the end of their educational tenure at Seneca, students graduate with a commercial pilot license and can apply to airline jobs.

For 45 years, the program operated out of Buttonville Airport in Markham, Ont. At its peak, the site had 14 aircraft, multiple classrooms, flight briefing rooms and flight simulators. But in 2014, Seneca’s purpose-built Peterborough Campus opened, and it is now home to students in years two to four of the degree program, as well as the Airline Pilot Flight Operations programs. (The Aviation Operations and Safety programs are based out of the Newnham campus in North York.) The Peterborough aviation campus has 20 airplanes and 10 simulators, as well as a range of briefing rooms, classrooms and aircraft maintenance areas. “Our students take one year of academics where they don’t actually see an airplane,” says Hitchins. “Part of that academics is getting them prepared for flying by having them learn aerodynamic fundamentals. We start them flying in May after two semesters of academic courses. That’s when it gets to be pretty intense,” says Hitchins, “because they have a full academic load plus flying. And time in the air isn’t just a half-hour lab twice a week. We go seven days a week, and its generally sun-up to sundown. There are times of the year where we do night training, too.”

At the end of their educational tenure at Seneca, students graduate with a commercial pilot license in addition to an honours baccalaureate degree, and can apply to airline jobs. “One great thing about our program is that many students already have a job lined up by the time they graduate,” says Hitchins. Seneca even has a couple of cadet programs, including with regional airline Jazz Aviation LP. Students apply to be enrolled and have an opportunity upon graduation to interview and do a simulator evaluation. This direct-entry program began in 2012 and was yet another first of its kind in the country.

Seneca Aviation is also a leader in how they apply technology to prepare students for jobs in industry. “Our simulators are among the most advanced in the nation. They range from single engine and multi-engine to piston engine and turbine engine,” says Hitchins. “And the simulators are so realistic now that you can get engaged in a situation and forget that you’re not really in an airplane.” The simulators can even be programmed with different external conditions, to give students a sense of how an airplane performs in particular environments. “We can program a simulator in the GTA to be a hot day in Calgary so the performance of the plane is way less than it would be at sea-level, for example,” says Hitchins. “The fact that we can do that without even leaving the room is great.”

Every lesson plan — whether in a simulator or in an actual plane — has a requirement to review at least one abnormal situation, too. “The issue is usually presented as a surprise,” says Hitchins. “We want our students to know how to handle and communicate any issue that arises. I always joke with classes that we’ll hand them the keys to an airplane at 20 hours and let them fly by themselves, but the remaining hundreds of hours are spent on prioritization skills, decision-making, leadership and more.” With that in mind, perhaps it’s no wonder that Seneca’s graduates are in high demand. Dr. Newnham’s original basis for the program continues to pay off.

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