Soaring on Red-and-Blue Wings

Delaware State University's aviation program offers a great value proposition, and the Vulcanair V1.0 training airplane.

A cold rain had turned the ramp at Delaware Airpark (33N) near Dover into a sopping mess. No surprise for a day in February, really. We huddled around a picnic table set in the back of the maintenance hangar that was, at the time, housing about a quarter of the training fleet at Delaware State University’s aviation campus. The rain tapped out a beat over our heads on the metal roof as director Lt. Col. Michael Hales illuminated the bright future of the aviation program he helped shepherd into maturity, following in the footsteps of program founder Daniel Coons, Ph.D., who convinced university leadership to back the initiative in 1987.

A few short weeks later, we would lock down—this rainy-day meeting was in 2020, just before the pandemic hit its stride in the US—but DSU’s flying continued on as well as it could. Those students persevered, fitting examples of the tenacity displayed by the mentors in whose footsteps they followed—none other than the Tuskegee Airmen who once flew here in pursuit of their own goals. In spite of the pandemic’s restrictions, 12 students graduated from the DSU Aviation Program in May 2020.

Flash-forward to late April 2021, and the DSU Hornets have thrived through just about every test, including the check rides anticipated in the weeks before graduation and the close of the semester. The program welcomed 127 students in fall 2020, with roughly 91 in flight labs through the year. A total of 12 students would graduate with the May 2021 class. Hales spoke then from the midst of the final push. “We’re in a mad dash for the last. We’re in the second-to-last true week of regular classes for this spring semester,” with April 29 marking the final day of regular classes.

Pursuing the Dream

The graduating students identified a number of goals they’re aiming toward, including the air national guard and the airlines. But the first step for most is a position as a flight instructor with the university. During the normal course of study, flight students move through six certificate milestones: a private certificate, an instrument rating, a commercial certificate, a multiengine rating, an initial CFI and, finally, an instrument instructor add-on rating.

When the students are in their junior year—usually the first semester of the program—typically they pass the CFI check ride. “I customarily hire them back into the aviation program, and give them students even while they’re still continuing their own classes and completing their own flight labs,” Hales said. “The reason I do that is because I want to help them in their march towards that thousand hours.” DSU’s program enables pilots to obtain a restricted ATP certificate because it offers 60 college credits, and the restricted ATP can be awarded once the pilot reaches 1,000 hours total time. “So, a thousand hours is really that magic number for them,” he emphasized. A student in the program has between 300 to 350 hours by the time they’ve finished the degree. Hales places them in a role as a CFI, putting himself in their shoes: “When I start as a CFI in our aviation program and have got a couple of students…now I’m flying [with] them, I’m getting paid—the highest on-campus wage [for students]—and I’m accumulating those hours, so that by the time that I graduate, with all my certifications, I am close to 500 hours.”

The Vulcanair 1.0 forms the core fleet. [Photo: Stephen Yeates]

Studying for the Dream

DSU program student Jermaine Morris finished up his sophomore year in May, but he was still a few weeks away from his commercial check ride when he talked with FLYING about the path he’d followed to get there. “I did one discovery flight with some flight school,” Morris said, “and it was a 30-minute flight, and I just said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ and that was the only experience I really had” before starting the DSU program.

“How to land for me was big,” Morris added. “I just didn’t understand. How did they come in and land? So, when I finally got that down, it was like, ‘Wow, that’s a big obstacle for me that I was able to overcome.’” As for his first solo? “I remember the day: I was with…my instructor at the time, and he got out of the plane and shut the door and said, ‘Go give me three landings,’ and I was just—it was real. I was PIC at that time, and there was no choice but for me to take off, fly the pattern and land again. No better feeling than getting off that plane that you soloed by yourself.”

Funding the Dream

DSU chose the Vulcanair 1.0 to replace its aging fleet—primarily because it could both fill the niche for flight training and be purchased at an attractive price. With a grant from the Delaware state legislature of $3.4 million, the university purchased a 2019 Piper Seminole and 10 Vulcanair 1.0s, turning the fleet over to new aircraft while still maintaining the financial numbers needed to grow the program. The first Vulcanair 1.0 was delivered in September 2019 (see sidebar).

DSU does little recruiting, and Hales anticipates that to remain the case as the program gains broader recognition. Also, funding for the students entering the program has gained another source. “The Flight Act, which was initiated by our US senator, Chris Coons,” Hales said, “specifically changed the language…for ROTC scholarships so that they could pay for the flight-lab fee, but it needs to be at an HBCU [historically Black college or university,] and it obviously needs to be at one that has an aviation program. We picked up six students who said, ‘Hey, I want to go to Del State,’ in anticipation of [the Flight Act].[AC4]  DSU also gained students when the Air Force Junior ROTC had to cancel its summer flight academy in 2020. “They had it all set,” Hales said. “[They] had selected the kids for it, but [the academy] was canceled, so someone out of the Air Force staff HQ said, ‘All right, we’ll give you a four-year scholarship and $10,000 towards your flight-lab fees if you go to an HBCU.’ So, six students just showed up.”

Instructors come from graduating the program, working toward 1,000 hours. [Photo: Stephen Yeates]

On To Aviate

The student who gains 500 hours within DSU’s program and instructing is well on the path to becoming an airline pilot. “[Five hundred hours] is also a significant number [for prospective airline pilots],” Hales said, because of the regional partnerships that DSU has with Piedmont Airlines and CommutAir. “[With] Piedmont, for instance, once you get to that 500-hour mark…you’re now eligible to be in their cadet program. [Once in] their cadet program…you interview, you get selected for that. Now you’re on track for when you get your thousand hours, so that you can go off to Piedmont. They also will pay you $1,000 for every 100 hours you get past 500 hours, towards that 1,000,” as an incentive.

The DSU program was selected in April by United Airlines to be part of its Aviate pilot-development initiative, in which the airline plans to train 5,000 new pilots by 2030—with the goal that at least half of those pilots will be women or people of color. DSU was the first HBCU invited to join the program.

Morris called out those pilots at United, specifically as his mentors: “Anyone who goes through this program and comes back and gives back to the DSU program definitely inspires me. Just like the event we had a few days ago—the United Aviate event—seeing all those alumni come back and talk to kids like me, ’cause they were in my shoes years ago, and they’re where I want to be now.” That event took place in the DSU hangar that now bears Coons’ name.

But Morris is inspired too by the quotidian effort and continuous attention he receives from one of those instructors who has come through the program just ahead of him. “My flight instructor currently, Moe—he’s definitely kept me on the track, and he inspires me day in and day out to be better, to keep pushing myself, to make myself one of the best pilots ever.”

True confidence comes from self-knowledge—the magnet that aligns and grounds you—and a foundation of understanding. Instructors seek to impart confidence to their students by building that knowledge core within each one. But the final direction must come from within the potential pilot. When confidence meets opportunity, great things happen.

A cadre of skilled, talented, confident aeronauts found opportunity in 1941, grasping at an opening door and pushing themselves through it into the skies. When the Civilian Pilot Training Program launched in 1939, schools such as DSU predecessor Delaware State College took the lead in encouraging potential pilots to sign up for their initial licensing—including Black cadets, in response to a initiative led by the Black press that pushed for their admittance. When Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, prohibiting racial restrictions on any voluntary enlistments, the US Department of War created a segregated flying unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron. The Tuskegee Airmen—as they became well-known—overcame every obstacle put in their way and proved through their successes that limiting African-Americans from becoming military pilots was simply wrong.

The DSU Aviation Program today honors their legacy, which shines through clearly in the successful pilots who began flying as Hornets.

A well-placed Garmin G500 TXi integrated flight display and GTN 650 navigator replicates in overall appearance and logic the flight instruments, engine information and moving-map presentation most nascent pilots will find as they progress to larger and more-complex aircraft in their careers. [Photo: Stephen Yeates]

The Vulcanair 1.0: Built for Training

Flight training’s mounts have evolved over the decades from the Jennys and Cubs of yore, through the Cessna 152 and 172 and Piper PA-28 series, to composite Diamonds and light-sport aircraft. But few have completely answered the call to replace the four-seat, 160- to 180-horsepower trainer in a school’s sweet spot—easy to fly as a first-time student yet big enough to take cross-country once your certificate is complete.

The Vulcanair 1.0 aims directly for this target, with its aluminum-skinned and steel-framed fuselage slung with a high-mounted pair of wings and 180 hp Lycoming IO-360-M1A powering it forward. For a former Cessna pilot, the Vulcanair will feel mostly familiar, with a number of twists both intriguing and somewhat awkward at first.

In the instrument panel, a well-placed Garmin G500 TXi integrated flight display and GTN 650 navigator replicates in overall appearance and logic the flight instruments, engine information and moving-map presentation most nascent pilots will find as they progress to larger and more-complex aircraft in their careers. In an appreciated safety move, an angle of attack indicator comes standard as well, along with a second navcom and ADS-B In and Out capability.

The preflight holds just a handful of differences from a 172 that won’t be apparent to new students, such as the improved access under the cowling. Once you’re in the left seat (or the right one as an instructor), it’s clear you’re in a different airplane. Part of the steel frame crosses the front windscreen, and the glare shield sits somewhat higher. The Vulcanairs originally delivered to DSU had a control yoke that was mounted in such a way, it didn’t provide much clearance for the average US-size university student, so Ameravia came up with a unique Y-shaped yoke, resembling that of the Concorde or an Embraer Phenom. Though the instructor I flew with assured me that after a while it became second nature, it still felt awkward during my demo flight. For those not needing the extra clearance, the original yoke seems like a good bet—or perhaps this is an area for the company to evaluate as more user feedback comes in.

In the air, the Vulcanair 1.0 shows decent performance, taking just a little more than 2,000 feet of the runway on takeoff at the Delaware Airpark with three of us on board and half tanks. In the practice area, we tried out slow flight, a steep turn and a power-off stall, mimicking a standard Stage 1 lesson in Part 141 curriculum. The Vulcanair’s behavior at the low-speed end of the regime didn’t demonstrate any ill manners, and visibility was quite good with the side windows cut several inches below my shoulder level. Well-placed air vents added comfort too, and a third door increases access to the rear seats.

Returning to land, use of the flaps showed another area of consideration. The white arc begins at 78 knots, and the airplane’s VSO sits around 49 knots, so approaches must be planned a little bit more carefully than those in an airplane where the first notch of flaps can be deployed above 100 knots. The airplane popped out of the air for firm ground contact during my two touch-and-goes. By a final full-stop landing, I had a feel for the nuances of this twist on a classic.

SPEC SHEET: Vulcanair 1.0

Powerplant:180 hp Lycoming IO-360-M1A
Wing Span32 ft., 10 in.
Overall length23 ft., 9 in.
Overall height 9 ft., 1 in.
Maximum Take-Off Weight2,546 lbs.
Typically Equipped Empty Weight1,627 lbs.
Maximum Useful Load919 lbs.
Usable Fuel Capacity50 gallons
Maximum Seating Capacity4
Maximum Luggage Weight88 lbs.
Cruise Speed at 75 percent power, ISA, 6,000 ft.130 ktas
Range (3 persons of 170 lbs, 45-min. reserve, 45 percent power, 10,000 ft.)591 nm
Rate of Climb at Sea Level900 fpm
Service Ceiling14,700 ft.
Takeoff Distance to 50 ft.1,608 ft.
Landing Distance (over 50 ft. obstacle)1,650 ft.

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of FLYING.

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