BY JAMES RUSSELL
TRAVERSE CITY — Northwestern Michigan College's aviation program is spreading its wings.
NMC President Tim Nelson signed an agreement last week with a Beijing-based group to explore exchange programs and possibly partner on a flight training academy in China. The move comes as the local program continues to attract international students.
"Our aviation program is very highly respected nationally and internationally," said Andy Dolan, NMC's executive director for public relations and marketing. "The U.S. is the place that, all over world, they look to get trained in aviation."
The agreement between NMC and Beijing Channel Consulting is the first step toward an exchange program that could include a two-week aviation course for Chinese students at NMC and study abroad opportunities for NMC students in China. In the long term, NMC may help develop a training academy in China.
Aaron Cook, aviation program director, said people in countries such as China are traveling more by air, but they lack schools and programs for new pilots.
"The U.S. in general has been looked upon as a world leader in aviation training, probably because we've been doing it so long," Cook said.
China isn't the only country turning to the local college to educate new pilots. Two current NMC aviation students are from Great Britain, and more are on the way this summer. Seven students from India are expected to enroll in 2012 for a yearlong program.
Cook said international students will account for about 25 percent of the program's flight hours this year.
"We did about 500 hours last year with international students, and we expect about 1,500 this year," Cook said.
Sam Jiggins, 23, studied aeronautical systems engineering at the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom, but came to Traverse City last summer to earn his private pilot license. He said it's more expensive to get licenses in the U.K. because of fees and Europe's high cost of fuel.
"There are a lot more schools in the U.S., so there's more opportunities in that respect. And, it's a lot cheaper — almost half the price," Jiggins said. "In England, you can spend between 50,000 to 100,000 pounds — that's like $75,000 to $150,000 — to get all the licenses. In America, I'll get all my licenses for about $40,000."
Jiggins returned to Traverse City this semester to pursue a commercial license and an associate degree in aviation. He expects to be at NMC for at least 10 months.
"NMC is a really good school," he said. "The equipment and the planes are like brand new. I just flew a plane that's only 15 hours old. It smelled brand new, with no marks on it. In England, all the planes are really old with analog cockpits."
The recently signed agreement does not commit NMC to spend any money in China, and expenses would need to go through the board of trustees, said Dolan.
Cook said student exchanges provide an important international focus at the college.
"It's not only big universities that provide opportunities for studying abroad. That's kind of the motivation — to make sure students that graduate NMC, whether aviation students or others, have an education that includes a global perspective," he said.