GREENWOOD — Future careers are taking flight in Greenwood thanks to a special program encouraging STEM learning and interest in aviation.
While airlines and air travelers face flight delays and cancellations due to staffing shortages, this aviation program in Johnson County works to create a pipeline into the industry for the next generation.
Roger Tomey, wants students to be immersed in aviation when they come to the Greenwood Municipal Airport and the new Aeronautical Center for Technology, which is currently under construction.
"The pilot population right now is dwindling," said Tomey, the education coordinator, "And when COVID hit, a lot of pilots took early retirement, so now its going to be even more critical to get the kids involved in this."
The Aeronautical Center for Technology in Greenwood is for students in grades 5-12 in not only Johnson County but also surrounding counties. It has always been a dream of Tomey's to have an education center located at the airport in the center of the action.
He shows us around the center, "In this area we will have 3-D printers," Tomey said. "And a simulator room, where kids will be able to learn how to fly."
Tomey says upon completion of this program, students will earn their pilot's certificate before graduating high school.
In addition to filling the gap in the aviation industry for pilots, the training here also includes STEM learning and can build skills in mathematics, engineering, aerospace, meteorology and more.
"It not only deals with being a pilot, it also deal with engineering and avionics," Tomey said. "There's a shortage of aircraft mechanics, we call them technicians now."
Prior to the new center, Tomey and other folks worked to support more then 4,500 students through aviation training since 2002.
The Experimental Aircraft Association of EAA is a national organization that includes pilots and others in the industry. Now the group works to educate the community and focuses heavily on training and education for the next generation.
Their local chapter of EAA 1354 continues that legacy by training future aviators through their Young Eagles Program.
The program utilizes qualified volunteer pilots to help young students fly a small airplane free of charge. The students are also given access to online flight training resources, also at no cost.
With the new center, this program can expand its reach to more students in the community and provide a curriculum for students to earn dual-credits for universities and intern at local aviation firms.
Southport High School sophomore Katie Essex is one of the participants.
"I've always been fascinated by flight. I always thought it would be something that could really enjoy," Essex said. "Just being able to see the airplanes and being here and being able to experience and just see something that not a lot of people get, I'm very thankful for that."
Essex was encouraged to apply for the training by her robotics teacher and she says it is a perfect fit so far.
She hopes to go to Purdue after high school to study aviation and aerospace engineering.
Essex has taken part in the ground school where she learned the basics and plans to take her next steps into the air this fall.
She said ground school was intense, with a lot of information packed into two days a week at two hours a day, but the knowledge she learned has helped her in many areas of education.
"This is something where you can take this and apply it to all areas of life," Essex said. "There's a lot of math involved in flying, who would've thought."
In this program, Tomey said students will construct an airplane and an additional perk to the program is the confidence boost.
"I can accomplish anything now, and that is a tremendous thing for a student to turn around and take that airplane off by himself and land it," Tomey said. "I've had parents come to us and tell us, when the kids see the practical application to math and science through aviation their grades have gone up from C level to B's and A's. Plus, when you see a student solo, when he steps out of that airplane, his confidence has just skyrocketed."
The program in Greenwood also works to serve students in underserved populations and those who do not have aerospace curriculum in their schools to help break barriers into the industry. The chapter is proud to partner with the Tuskegee Airmen, a national organization that continues to build on the legacy of the first all-black squadron in World War II by inspiring and encouraging young people of color to pursue aviation careers.
Jaiden Hughes, a senior at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, has his mind focused on his future in aviation thanks to this program as his eyes look to the skies.
"When I grow up, I have a whole lot of things I want to do when I grow up," says Hughes. "I think flying planes is going to be one of the main things I'm going to do."
Hughes did not aspire for aviation as a child, but a friendship formed at his church changed all of that.
The Rev. Samuel J. Murray attends Light of the World Christian Church with Hughes and the two formed a friendship. But before that, Murray was raised in Birmingham and attended Tuskegee University, formally Tuskegee Insititute. That is where he earned his wings, learning to fly from one of the best, an original Tuskegee Airman who flew former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.
"I became a part of that tradition and one that I can be proud of even today," says Murray. "It's important. Because for so long, African Americans have been told that they were not able to fly."
Murray is Hughes' sponsor for this aviation program. He not only helps coach him through flying but also serves as a mentor and positive role model.
"Flying brings out the best of our character, I think" says Murray. "Because it does involve so much trust, not only the people you are flying with but also the people on the ground that you are dependent on for instruction and service, so it is a wonderful career field."
For Hughes, the means the world to him and others like him.
"There's opportunities for young minorities lie myself, other than what you see in mainstream," says Hughes.
If you or your student is interested in learning more about this aviation program, you can call the Greenwood Municipal Airport for more information, visit https://www.aerotechcenter.org/ or email email@example.com.