AUGUSTA — Ben Rogers was on a flight to Puerto Rico a few years ago when he looked out the window and thought that flying was what he wanted to do.

“It was something I saw myself actually doing,” Rogers said during an interview at the University of Maine at Augusta, where Rogers will be the first graduate of the school’s aviation program.

The program started three years ago when former president Allyson Handley struck a private-public partnership with Maine Instrument Flight at the Augusta State Airport.

“They provide the flight training and ground training with their instructors in our facilities,” said aviation program coordinator Greg Jolda. “We manage the students.”

Throughout the four-year program, students get private pilot training, instrument rating and commercial training and graduate with the ability to also earn money as an instructor.

“Theoretically, when a student graduates they would have about 300 hours of flight time and could be an instructor and accrue additional hours while making money,” Jolda said.

Jolda said the program has about 40 students ranging from retired military personnel and middle-aged college graduates to young adults fresh out of high school. Rogers came to UMA with a year of college credit from a different institution, so while he is the first official graduate of the program, next year will see its first official graduating class.

The program culminates in a Bachelor of Science degree in aviation, according to the university’s website.

According to UMA’s website, the program costs about $108,532 on average, including flight instruction and hours, tuition, and insurance. Jolda said there is financial aid and scholarships available, but he does admit that students will probably graduate with significant debt.

However, the aviation industry, Jolda said, is experiencing a shortage of pilots and air traffic controllers. He hopes the UMA program continues to grow because the industry needs the help.

Rogers is among 672 who have applied to graduate from UMA on Saturday. School officials expect between 400 and 450 will take part in commencement, which is at 10 a.m. at the Augusta Civic Center.

Rogers, 22, grew up in Topsham and graduated from Mt. Ararat High School in 2012. He spent a year at Norwich University in Vermont studying mechanical engineering when he saw that UMA was starting a new aviation program.

“I applied, got accepted and have been here ever since,” Rogers said. He plans to enroll in Officer Candidate School in the Marine Corps in September with the hopes of eventually flying C-130 tankers or maybe even a fighter jet.

“I chose the Marines because they told me if I passed their flight physical and written exam, I would be offered a contract and guaranteed that I could fly,” Rogers said. “The Air Force cannot guarantee that I’d be able to fly after officer school.”

Rogers’ father was a Naval officer, so they spent a lot of time at the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Rogers would watch C-130s and other planes take off and land every day.

“I thought I wanted to do that someday,” he said. “I wanted to be a mechanical engineer because doing that and being a military pilot go hand-in-hand.”

Rogers said going through the program has been challenging and rewarding. He said the hardest part is learning the rules and regulations.

“The Federal Aviation Administration exam is pretty comprehensive,” he said.

Rogers hopes to fly for the Marines as long as possible before moving to become a commercial airline pilot. The FAA recently changed its requirements for airline pilots and now stipulate that a pilot must have 1,500 flying hours before flying for a commercial airline.

Throughout the program, students spend countless hours in the air but also many hours using the $100,000 Redbird FMX flight trainer in the Randall Student Center at UMA. Jolda said it is a much cheaper way to get instrument training because it doesn’t require an actual aircraft.

Rogers said he tries to fly several times per week, because no matter how many times he does it, he still needs practice.

“I never would’ve suspected that it is so hard to land an airplane,” Rogers said. “I see people take off and land all the time, and it always looked really easy.”

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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