It's hard to say which is stranger: that the University of North Dakota next spring will become the first U.S. institute of higher education to set up its own airline, or that many of the new carrier's co-pilots will be from Taiwan.
Call it serendipity. North Dakota has lacked scheduled air service between its major cities since deregulation more than a decade ago. Training facilities for pilots are virtually nonexistent in Taiwan. The university has a degree program to teach flying.
And so 26-year-old Fan Yu Liu--"Allen," as they call him at UND--is a student at the chilly Grand Forks campus as well as an employee of his country's national carrier, China Airlines, which is paying for him to become a commercial pilot.
"With the training in the U.S.," he said, "I can go right into a well-paid profession." In Taiwan he will be paid the equivalent of about $5,000 a month as a first officer. Within five years he will be qualified as a captain, earning $10,000 a month.
Although U.S. commercial carriers hire most of their pilots from the military, such a pool of veterans has all but dried up in isolated Taiwan, the students say. That has forced China Airlines to begin hiring neophytes with no previous flying experience, training them from scratch.
Enter the University of North Dakota. So far, four classes of about 20 Chinese students each have completed 16-month training programs at the university's Center for Aerospace Sciences.
Till now, they have had minimal ground training in Taiwan, about 300 hours behind the stick in North Dakota, and then an informal apprenticeship under experienced China Airlines pilots back in their homeland.
At the same time, North Dakota residents have faced untold inconvenience trying to get around their lightly populated state.
Since the last regional airline dropped service in North Dakota, it has been virtually impossible to fly between cities in the state without a long detour to Minneapolis.
For example, to get from Grand Forks, on the Minnesota border, to Bismarck, the centrally located capital, passengers must fly Northwest Airlines to Minneapolis. Though the two North Dakota cities are just 178 air miles apart, the plane trip covers 483 miles--punctuated by a two-hour layover.
So, the new regional carrier that the university plans to establish early next year will perform a dual function. It will offer hands-on experience for the Chinese pilots and provide badly needed airline service linking Bismarck, Fargo, Grand Forks, Minot and other North Dakota cities.
Formally, the airline will be created by the university's nonprofit Aerospace Foundation and the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission. The two agencies are negotiating with potential operators for the carrier. The planes--five 30-seat, Irish-made Shorts turboprops--will be owned by a holding company no more than 25%-controlled by China Airlines.
Once the new airline begins service, the Chinese students' training will expand to include another 400 hours in the course of a year as first officers of the North Dakota carrier. They will sit in the right seats of the aircraft and basically do what any co-pilot on a commercial airliner does.
"This will be similar to what a farm team does for the big boys," says Gary Ness, director of the North Dakota Aeronautics Commission. "American pilots fly on such regional carriers and then move up to Northwest or anywhere else. These pilots will go back to China to work."
The steady stream of crew members will help the airline overcome a common obstacle. "All (small) regional carriers have difficulty finding crews. Some have struggled to find pilots and first officers," says Ness. "This will help solve some of that problem too."
The hub of the still-unnamed airline will be in Bismarck, no more than 185 miles from any of the North Dakota airports that the carrier will serve. Later, it hopes to expand service to South Dakota and the neighboring Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Winnipeg and Saskatchewan.
According to Ness, a study commissioned by the state found that about 100,000 passengers would use the carrier annually.
The study also showed that the airline would make only minimal profits. However, Ness notes, that calculation was made before it was known that China Airlines would pay the salaries of one-third of the three-member crews.
For its investment--not just the $600 monthly salaries, but also full tuition and expenses--China Airlines requires the would-be pilots to sign a contract to remain with the airline for 15 years.
"We're glad to do it in return for this kind of training," said Juifei (Fay) Teng, one of two women who have attended the course. "This is a very good career in China."