Wings Magazine

Pilots NextGen

In the late afternoon of Sept. 3 last year, two students and a flight instructor of the School of Aviation and Flight Technology (AFT) of North York, Ontario-based Seneca College were on a cross-country flight to Vermont when their Beechcraft Bonanza suffered an engine failure.

March 26, 2009  By Blair Watson

In the late afternoon of Sept. 3 last year, two students and a flight instructor of the School of Aviation and Flight Technology (AFT) of North York, Ontario-based Seneca College were on a cross-country flight to

Dominic Totino, director of academics and operations, and John Robertson, CFI, stand in front of one of Seneca’s Beechcraft Barons.


Vermont when their Beechcraft Bonanza suffered an engine failure. A clicking noise from the powerplant was followed by a loud bang and substantial power loss.

The 24-year-old flight instructor, Michael Denning, took control of the aircraft from the third-year student. Suddenly, the engine quit altogether, forcing the three occupants to look for a nearby landing site – the closest airport was more than eight kilometres away. The part of New York State over which they were flying has mountains, lakes and an interstate highway; landing on I-87 was the only viable option. A graduate of the AFT program in 2007 and subsequently certified as a flight instructor, Denning drew on his training as he glided the Bonanza above two transport trucks by less than 100 feet.


“You just react to the situation as you’ve been trained to do. There’s not really time to panic,” Denning told the Canadian Press, which published a news report the following day about the harrowing event. “As soon as the [truck] drivers saw the airplane they naturally stopped, which helped us out because it blocked traffic.”

After Denning and the students got out of the Bonanza, they saw that there was less than a metre between the wingtips and the guard rail on either side of the highway. Denning’s training to never get lax about landing on
the centerline saved the college’s aircraft from structural damage.

Sophisticated technology is used during IATP training, most notably a Bombardier Regional Jet CRJ-200 Level 5 FTD.


“I think after anything like this you always look back and say that something that seemed to be a problem at the time really isn’t a big deal anymore,” Denning added philosophically.

The way in which Denning and the students dealt with the in-flight emergency is proof of the effectiveness of the professional pilot training provided by AFT. The college offers “an applied degree program that contains an integrated flight and academic curriculum, with breadth and depth that exceed industry standards and provide a safety-conscious environment.” Last year, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology celebrated the 40th anniversary of the AFT program.

Since 1968, about 1,000 students have graduated from Seneca; many fly for domestic and international airlines, the Canadian Forces, flight training schools, and other aircraft operators. AFT graduates have also enjoyed non-flying careers in air traffic control, aviation management and other sectors of the industry.

Between 1968 and 2002, Seneca College offered a 3-year AFT program, with hundreds of young people applying each year and less than three dozen (typically) graduating. By the new century, it was clear that the preference of airlines was to hire pilots with a university degree so the 3-year program was replaced with a 4-year Bachelor of Applied Technology flight program starting in 2003. The last graduating class of the 3-year program was in 2005.
The AFT program was the first of its kind in Canada. Under the direction of Frank Rock, its first course coordinator, it was determined that training would focus on engineering and aeronautical subjects as well as flight training, culminating in students getting their commercial pilot’s licence with instrument and multi-engine ratings.

Initially, Toronto Airways at Buttonville Airport (YKZ) in Markham provided AFT students with flight training for their private and commercial licences. Using a Cessna 172, Piper Arrow and Cessna 310, Seneca instructors at the Buttonville campus did instrument and multi-engine training.

In 1973, the college replaced its airplanes with a new fleet consisting of three Cessna 172s, two Cessna Cardinals and two Cessna 310s. The two Cardinals were later replaced by two more Cessna 172s. The college also took over flight training for the commercial licence while Toronto Airways continued to provide private pilot instruction. In 2001, Seneca College took over ab initio flight training from Toronto Airways due to a Transport Canada integrated pilot training requirement (i.e., all training was to be done by one provider).
In 1991, the Cessna 310s were replaced with two Beechcraft Barons and the college bought five new Beechcraft Bonanzas to replace the Cessna 172s the following year. In 1995, Frasca Level 5 flight training devices (FTDs) for the Barons and Bonanzas were acquired. When the school took over ab initio training in 2001, seven new Cessna 172s were added to the fleet. An additional C-172 was added in 2008 due to an increase in students.
In terms of funding, since 1969 the government of Ontario has provided monies to Seneca College for the AFT program, which currently costs $40,000, a bargain for a degree program and commercial multi-IFR licence.
The AFT program is rigourous in terms of its academic standards and flight training. There are typically 300 to 400 applicants each year and 80 students begin the program in September. Forty students graduate annually, plus or minus a few.

Co-op elements of the AFT program cover professional practice, a work term, and integration and career planning. Students learn résumé-writing, job search, and interviewing skills. The work term is a minimum of 14 weeks during which students gain valuable experience in roles that support flight operations. Some AFT students work on airport ramps or in dispatch and a few go to Air Canada to help out in aviation safety. Nav Canada takes on one AFT student each year to assist in air navigation projects. Some students with dual citizenship temporarily leave Canada to do their co-op work term with a foreign airline or other type of aviation company. After students return, they do a presentation about their experience so their classmates can have a broader perspective of the aviation industry.

AFT students attend classes in Seneca College’s Newnham campus in North York during the first year and at the school’s campus at YKZ, where all the flying takes place, for the remaining three years. With a fleet of 15 airplanes, there is a lot of activity going on at the Buttonville campus. Operations run seven days a week from early morning to late in the evening and students perform reception, dispatch and flight-following duties to prepare for the commercial aviation environment.

In April 2006, Seneca College announced that AFT received Transport Canada approval for an Integrated Airline Transport Pilot Program (IATP), the first of its kind in Canada. The program provides AFT students with the kind of multi-crew training desired by the airlines and credit toward their Airline Transport Pilot Licence.

Seneca College’s fleet consists of Cessna 172s, Beechcraft Bonanzas and Beechcraft Barons.


Sophisticated technology is used during IATP training, most notably a Bombardier Regional Jet CRJ-200 Level 5 (no motion) FTD. Multi-crew training on modern equipment is a major reason why AFT graduates have been hired by airlines as entry-level first officers. To get accustomed to the airline environment, students are required to dress professionally. To be admitted to the AFT program, students undergo alcohol and drug testing and during their four years in the school, they can be retested if substance abuse is suspected. They also bid for time off, as do airline pilots.

Another first in Canada involving Seneca College was accreditation of the AFT degree program in February 2007 by the Aviation Accreditation Board International (AABI), a not-for-profit organization consisting of educational institutions, corporations, practitioners, trade organizations and members of the public-at-large. The AABI is recognized as a specialized accrediting body by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation.

Leading the AFT is Dominic Totino, director of academics and operations. Totino, a licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineer who started at the college in 1978, has also been director of maintenance since 1990. John Robertson is the CFI and professor of human factors and safety systems. Robertson, a former Canadian Forces Sea King helicopter and Tutor jet pilot and chief flying instructor at the Moose Jaw military flight training base, was awarded the David Charles Abramson Memorial Flight Instructor Safety Award in 2007. Seneca College also employs AMEs, flight professors and several flight instructors, many of whom are AFT graduates flying airline ‘big iron.’
Looking to the future, the college’s older airplanes will need to be replaced in the next half decade. AFT management is working toward obtaining Transport Canada certification for the school to become an Approved Training Organization (ATO); relevant regulations come into effect in 2009. Once certified, Seneca will be able to reduce flying hours by utilizing simulation technology to satisfy the pilot training requirement, a prudent strategy given volatile fuel prices and limited government funding for post-secondary education. FTDs with full glass-cockpit instrumentation are among the technological tools available to the school.

What began as an idea has been a remarkable Canadian college success during the past 40 years. AFT will continue to transform young people with little or no flying experience into pilots trained to the highest standard who are ready to enter the aviation workforce and enjoy long and rewarding careers.

Stan J. Miller: A remarkable career
p28bNo article about Seneca College’s Aviation and Flight Technology program would be complete without mentioning Stan J. Miller, Allied bomber pilot during the Second World War, Royal Canadian Air Force instructor, and AFT instructor, chief flying instructor and chairman. Maj Miller (ret.) – known as “Mr. Miller” to hundreds of AFT students – accumulated some 19,000 flight hours, 14,000 of them in flight training, during a remarkable flying career spanning more than six decades. He passed away in September 2007. An airport in Melfort, Sask. is named in his honour: Miller Field.


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