From Students To Successful Pilots at Southern Utah University

October 18, 2020

Pilots in training at Southern Utah University (SUU), will receive a one-of-a-kind experience; not only because they will end up with both a university degree and pilots' license, but also because of the school’s unique location. 

Cedar City, Utah lies between two famous national parks, Zion and Bryce. It's home to hoodoos (spire-shaped rock formations) and canyonlands unlike any other. There are 10,000-foot mountains to the east and a vast desert to the west - it's the kind of majestic landscape you'd recognise from a classic Western film. 

"It's what they call colour country," says Richard Cannon, the Director of Flight Operations at SUU, "There's a lot of red rock." 

Sitting at 5600 ft above sea level, SUU is the highest altitude flight school in the United States. 

Adding to the terrain and altitude, it's also a region that experiences all four seasons. 

"You get a wide variety of what it's like to fly in heat, as well as what it's like to fly and land an airplane on a slick runway because it's got ice on it. Students get the full gamut," Richard explains. 

In the middle of summer, pilots experience 9000 ft air density altitudes regularly, meaning the distances needed for take-off and landings can vary. A mix of changing landscapes, altitudes, and density altitudes means that pilots at this university receive a wide range of training. 

With over 30 aircraft, students' clock around 35,000 pooled flight hours every year. 

 "It's great to see folks fulfill their dreams like I did of becoming a pilot and doing something they enjoy," says Richard. "It's a great environment. Everybody's happy because they get to fly. It's hard not to have a smile on your face when you're flying."

 For Richard, becoming a pilot was his "second go at life." Originally going to university for construction management, Richard ended up working in construction management lending. After eight years of ‘corporate America’, he had enough. 

"I wanted to do something more enjoyable with my life. So, I jumped ship and became a pilot." 

As a kid, aviation was Richard's passion. The only problem was, he didn't think it was a possible option. A desk job seemed like the more viable choice, yet he wasn't getting anything out of it. 

"I wanted to fly, but I didn't think it was a realistic thing I could do until I looked into it and realised, 'oh, I can do this."

Today, Richard works with students making the same plunge into aviation he did. Although he spends his days overseeing and managing the programme's operations, he still does a couple of flights here and there with students and proficiency flights with instructors.

Training the Pilots of the Future

Seven years ago, Richard helped create SUU’s aviation programme. As a fully integrated component of the university, Richard believes it helps their students move up in the world. 

"It gives them a leg up," he explains, "Everyone comes out of this programme with a degree which makes them a more well-rounded pilot." 

Richard says that what's available to students now wasn't available to him when he was learning to fly - and that was less than a decade ago! For example, most of the aircraft at SUU have a glass component, or a glass cockpit, which means that flight instruments have a digital display; students can see and utilise inside the aircraft makes the workload more manageable. 

"I don't have to look at a lot of different places across the dashboard. I can look at one screen in front of me and get 90% of the information I need for that flight. It's all right there in front of me," says Richard. 

"I think that's going to be the future as we move ahead. It's going to become more and more simplified for the pilot. Information will become more readily accessible."

Seeing information quickly allows pilots to make decisions quicker, which Richard believes is one of the most significant benefits to technological advancements.

Scattered Across the Southwest

At SUU, safety is their top priority. Twice a month, a committee reviews safety trends to make any changes necessary to ensure operations remain as safe as possible. Once a semester, they hold a safety stand down and review safety trends with everyone.

"We want to make sure everybody comes home at the end of the day," says Richard, "That's absolutely critical for us.” 

On any given day, student pilots can be scattered all over Utah, northern Arizona, and even 200 miles southwest in Las Vegas. 

It's a lot to keep track of. 

"We wanted to make sure we were tracking our aircraft well. We thought ADS-B [Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast] would be the magic bullet. Still, we ran into some big issues pretty quickly during training where we didn't see the aircraft," Richard explains. 

In the USA, ADS-B enables aircraft to broadcast their position, altitude, and velocity on one of two frequencies. Preferring a satellite system to avoid losing track of aircraft, Richard and his team began looking at other options.  

"Immediately, we liked Spidertracks for the simplicity of the user interface and how easy it is to get the information we want."

Since June, Richard and his team have gradually installed our new Spider X into each aircraft. The upgraded hardware provides insights that previously have only been possible for commercial airliners.   

"Everybody likes it. From a dispatch standpoint, we can see the aircraft in real-time, everywhere. We aren't losing aircraft when we have a line of sight issue." 

With Spider X, finding a pilot’s location – no matter what - is just the beginning. In a few months, we'll check back with Richard to see what happens when a flight school can see not only where their students are flying, but how they're flying. 

To learn more about Spider X, click here

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