MESA, Ariz. – Yuchen “Bob” Bao checks the propeller of his plane as the sun glares off his sunglasses and as planes land a few hundred yards behind him. Mountains dominate the horizon.

Bao finishes his preflight inspections and gives a thumbs-up before climbing into a UND training plane. He taxis toward the runway before taking off for the skies at this airport outside Phoenix.

Boa is one of approximately 350 students enrolled at UND’s Phoenix Flight Training Center, located at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport in Mesa, Ariz. The program, celebrating its 25th birthday this year, is supported by the UND Aerospace Foundation.

Yuchen "Bob" Bao, a student in UND's Phoenix Flight Training Center, completes his pre-flight inspection of his plane in Mesa, Ariz. on Feb. 18, 2020. (Sydney Mook / Grand Forks Herald)
Yuchen "Bob" Bao, a student in UND's Phoenix Flight Training Center, completes his pre-flight inspection of his plane in Mesa, Ariz. on Feb. 18, 2020. (Sydney Mook / Grand Forks Herald)

The students in the program, which is run in conjunction with Chandler-Gilbert Community College, receive the same training as students back on UND’s main campus in Grand Forks, according to Rex Ginder, associate director of Phoenix Flight Operations.

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Samuel Woods joined the program earlier this year.

He started working at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, the area’s main airport located in Phoenix, around three years ago as a ramp agent for a regional airliner. About a year and half into his job, Woods pondered a question that would eventually steer him toward Chandler-Gilbert and UND’s flight training program.

“I was pushing a plane back and I just thought, ‘Why am I not flying these planes? I should be in the cockpit,’” Woods recalled thinking.

Soon thereafter, Woods researched flight schools in the Phoenix area.

There are a number of flight training schools in Arizona, including one associated with Arizona State University and many private schools such as ATP, both of which are located at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport. However, Woods said people he talked to pointed him toward UND’s program with Chandler-Gilbert Community College.

“They were just singing its praises,” Woods said.

Another thing that attracted Woods to UND’s program was its safety record and attention to detail, he said. Woods grew up in Arizona and had been to Chandler-Gilbert before, so he was also attracted to the partnership between the two schools. All of that led Woods to the program.

“The biggest thing is the structure,” Woods said. “There are other schools that will get you through faster, but talking to pilots that went (through those type of programs) or pilots who have kids that went there, they (said) ‘it’s a factory and you’re not getting the best instruction or one-on-one time.’ So I ended up here.”

Planes are lined up at UND's Phoenix Flight Training Center on Feb. 18, 2020 in Mesa, Ariz. (Sydney Mook / Grand Forks Herald)
Planes are lined up at UND's Phoenix Flight Training Center on Feb. 18, 2020 in Mesa, Ariz. (Sydney Mook / Grand Forks Herald)

Though only a semester into his training, Woods said he already feels comfortable in the program.

“Any time I need a question answered, there’s always somebody readily available that is competent to answer it,” he said.

Students at Chandler-Gilbert can earn a two-year degree through UND with the option to continue flight training and receive a four-year aviation degree at UND in Grand Forks. Ginder said about 15% of students end up transferring north after completing their first two years in Arizona. There are currently no Arizona transfer students in Grand Forks, according to UND.

A UND plane prepares for landing at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport on Thursday, Feb. 20 in Mesa, Ariz. (Sydney Mook / Grand Forks Herald)
A UND plane prepares for landing at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport on Thursday, Feb. 20 in Mesa, Ariz. (Sydney Mook / Grand Forks Herald)

Woods already has a bachelor’s degree, so he doesn’t have plans to transfer to the main UND campus. He wants to become a certified flight instructor with the program before moving to the airline industry.

The student experience and learning is slightly different at the Arizona school, Ginder said, mostly due to different terrain and weather patterns. Students there deal with mountains and coastlines rather than the winds and varying weather in North Dakota.

“Those are just some of the things that add value to their experience here,” Ginder said.

At 33, Woods said he’s a bit of an older student. Many of his classmates and instructors are younger, but it’s all been a learning experience thus far, he said.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “I’m excited to be here.”

A  UND airplane taxis on the runway at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport on Thursday, Feb. 20 in Mesa, Ariz. (Sydney Mook / Grand Forks Herald)
A UND airplane taxis on the runway at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport on Thursday, Feb. 20 in Mesa, Ariz. (Sydney Mook / Grand Forks Herald)

While Woods doesn’t have plans to head north, his flight instructor, Madison Petrie, knows all about the cold northern state and the university’s program in Grand Forks. Petrie is a Grand Forks native who recently graduated from the university and moved to the Phoenix area.

“I really enjoy getting to teach the next generation of students,” Petrie said. “I think it’s really rewarding to see them progress.”

That next generation of students could be much larger, as enrollment begins to increase at UND's main campus amid a pilot shortage. Ginder said he expects numbers to increase at the Arizona site, too.