Southern Utah University student aviators take to the skies when calls for help go out

SUU Aviation Program pilot flying NVG Operations in Iron County, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of SUU Aviation Program, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Southern Utah University’s aviation program is setting the benchmark for aerial support assistance programs across the country as students take to the skies sporting night-vision technology when calls go out for help.

SUU Aviation Program student and pilot flying over canyon, Iron County, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of SUU Aviation Program, St. George News

The SUU aviation program assists law enforcement agencies and first responders in various functions, including search and rescue operations, early identification of wildfires, crime scene aerial photography and first responder assistance to Intermountain Life Flight crews.

This is made possible by the fact that most of the top-level management in the university’s aviation program are also deputies in the Iron County Sheriff’s Office’s Air Operations Division.

The service the aviation program provides was illustrated in the recent rescue of a missing 6-year-old child that wandered off while shed hunting in Iron County.

Read more: 6-year-old found safe after 9-hour search in Iron County

During the search, an SUU flight instructor assisted in the nine-hour mission that ended when search teams on the ground located the child and returned him to his family.

Rescuers, K-9 units and Iron County Sheriff’s deputies gather after the 9-hour rescue of a 6-year-old child ends safely, Iron County, Utah, March 9, 2018 | Photo courtesy of the Iron County Sheriff’s Office, St. George News / Cedar City News

Aviation program Executive Director Michael Mower said he looks at the program’s aerial support during such events as a community service.

Mower was first notified of the search when the Iron County Sheriff’s Office contacted him and requested assistance to locate the child and, within 20 minutes, the SUU helicopter arrived at the staging area.

SUU flight instructor Daniel Garcia was able to see the search area in the dark, which, Mower said, would have been impossible without the night-vision technology implemented in the program within the last month.

The boy’s rescue was the first opportunity the students had to use the technology in a real-life search and rescue scenario.

The helicopter plays a role in many rescues by making “a lot of noise, and stirring things up below,” Mower said, “which gets people moving.”

Many times the injured or lost individuals come into the open once they hear the helicopter, making it easier for ground crews to see them, who Mower said deserve the lion’s share of the credit for rescue efforts.

“Any praise given or deserved goes to those guys on the ground who search throughout the night, hike all over and show up at a moment’s notice to find and rescue these people.”

Rescues do not always involve searching for or flying a lost hiker out of the area to return them to safety. Sometimes rescues involve flying emergency medical personnel to an injured person at the top of a canyon or steep cliff.

Southern Utah University aviation program

SUU’s aviation program is one of only three schools that offer flight training in the state. It is the largest program in Utah and the only program of its kind in the nation offering both fixed-wing and rotor aircraft.

In this December 2016 file photo, Southern Utah University’s aviation program provides a helicopter for the Shop with a Cop event, Cedar City, Utah, Dec. 10, 2016 | Photo by Tracie Sullivan, St. George / Cedar City News

“It is one of the largest helicopter schools in the country,” Mower said.

In terms of elevation, it is the highest college aviation program in the nation, giving students who learn to fly at SUU an advantage, due to the difficulty inherent in high-altitude flying.

Students attending SUU’s aviation program are not necessarily from Utah. The program includes students attending from 45 states and three countries.

SUU Aviation Program graduates can be found on “every continent,” Mower said, adding, “most of our graduates either go into air medical transport or law enforcement operations, which is where the night-vision technology becomes important.”

Placement after graduation is included in the program.

“We have 100 percent placement right now,” Mower sad, “and the return on investment is remarkably higher than other professions.”

The need is high, as well.

The U.S. produces less than 600 pilots per year total, but the need far exceeds that. Over the next 10 years, 7,500 helicopter pilots will be needed.

Program controversies – then and now

The SUU aviation program is much different today than the previous program run by Upper Limits Aviation, an outside company that contracted with the university to offer the professional pilot degree in 2013.

The two organizations came under fire in subsequent years. Members of the community voiced complaints about increased air traffic and noise from aircraft and a proposed rate increase for the airport brought on by the Cedar City Council. The program also became the target of a Los Angeles Times article in March 2015 about a Department of Veterans Affairs loophole scandal.

After more than a year of turmoil, SUU took over the program and severed all ties to Upper Limits Aviation and has worked with the various agencies to ensure that all issues are resolved.

“I answer directly to the university president, so if there is anything going on, we make the changes locally,” Mower said, “and there is no third party anymore.”

Today, the program is now entirely self-funded. Enrollment is increasing and the program is using its own money to purchase new aircraft. The program also received a premier endorsement from a leading air service provider, SkyWest Airlines.

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Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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