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Dreams take flight: Aviation academy lets students explore career paths

Fayetteville Regional Airport’s ACE Academy gives students an early look at a pathway to aviation careers while encouraging them to let their ambitions soar.


The kids are at the controls.
And the adults don’t mind one bit.
On a recent Monday, it would have seemed like business as usual for most people near Fayetteville Regional Airport as pilots were lifting off or landing small aircraft on the runways.
But if they could have had a better look inside the cockpit once the plane reached a certain altitude, they would have seen something unusual.
Schoolkids ranging in age from 9 to 17 were actually at the control panel, and they were flying the plane. Not just observing but flying the plane as part of the Aviation Career Education Academy, a second-year summer program hosted by Fayetteville Regional.
The ACE Academy is for students who are interested in aviation and aerospace careers. The two-day program was held Aug. 7-8 on the airport campus and was attended by 41 students from Cumberland County Schools, according to Airport Director Toney Coleman.
All 41 — 21 on the first day, 20 on the second — got their turns in the cockpit, Coleman says.
A ‘cool’ experience
“It’s really cool,” says Micah Lopez-Andujar, a 16-year-old at E.E. Smith High School. “That’s the only word I can describe it with. It was my first time in the cockpit.
“To me, it was easier than driving a car. I didn’t get the same nervousness I do when I get behind the steering wheel of a car, get in the driver’s seat of a car.”
You didn’t have to know how to drive to enjoy the full experience.
“I was surprised,” says 12-year-old Cameron Mitchell, a seventh-grader at Max Abbott Middle School. “I didn’t think they would let me fly it. It was a little intimidating at first, and then I got really used to it.
“It was just really cool to learn how to fly and how to control like the yoke and the yaw and the turning, the signals that you use if there’s any traffic in the area.”
Like Lopez-Andujar, Mitchell had flown before, but he had never sat in a cockpit.
Coleman is hoping that first experience at the controls might lead to a career in aviation for some of these youngsters.
“The purpose and vision from the state’s perspective and our perspective is to make sure we reach out to communities that normally don’t have pilots come from them,” says Coleman, who has been airport director for three years after starting as an intern in 1993. “So we went to several schools that had that demographic associated with it.”
Coleman says another goal is to help alleviate a shortage of pilots.
“The bottom line is, we wanted to make sure we filled the aviation pipeline because when it comes to regional airports like Fayetteville, we are suffering right now with the pilot shortage,” Coleman says. “When cuts come, they usually come to regional airports first, so it’s kind of incumbent upon us to make sure that we have a backfill that is being lost right now.”
Fayetteville Regional Airport received a $3,000 grant from the North Carolina Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation for the past two years as seed money for the aviation academy. It is one of 10 public airports in the state hosting the program.
‘A lot easier than I thought’
Several companies offer support through funding and providing equipment and employees’ time to teach students the finer points of aviation.
One of them is Cape Fear Aviation, whose pilots serve as flight instructors.
Scot Smith, owner of Cape Fear Aviation, says the earlier a person is exposed to the aviation industry, the better.
“What we’re trying to do here is just show them how attainable aviation is and attaining a pilot’s license can be,” Smith says. “Basically, we’re flying around, and what we’re trying to get across is that they can fly the plane. We get up there and get in the air, and we let them handle the controls.
“It’s just the very basics, enough that they can climb and turn and turn right and turn left. That’s it. We just want them to be able to get to a particular point and do that successfully, and that’s their first win. When we get done, everybody says the same thing: It’s a lot easier than I thought.”
Smith was the flight instructor for Lopez-Andujar.
“The cool thing with him was he was so quiet,” Smith says. “He seemed nervous and timid, but by the end of the flight he was talking about how much fun he had and how easy it was and how cool it was.
“So obviously there was a lot of nerves early on, but he picked it up and did really well.”
So well that Lopez-Andujar could not wait to share his adventure with fellow students at tryouts for E.E. Smith’s boys soccer team.
“Not many people can say that they’ve flown today,” he says. “Now when I go to tryouts, I can tell everybody, ‘Hey, I just flew in an airplane today.’”
Lopez-Andujar was taking it all in.
“I try to learn something every day, so you cannot stop learning. Expand that dictionary in your mind, get as much knowledge, become a better person,” the 16-year-old says. “You get as much information as you can, pay attention, and overall, it was worth it.”
Like getting a college degree
Smith, who taught his first flight lesson as owner of Cape Fear Aviation in 2016, says any one of the students that he showed the ropes on Aug. 7 could become a pilot in four years.
“They can kind of look into it, look at the costs and see that the cost of pilot training is similar to that of a college degree. A college degree isn’t necessary to become an airline pilot,” says Smith, who took over ownership of the business from his father, Dale Smith, a pilot and mechanic. “You can go straight into your pilot training. The costs are similar, and it’s a great career.
“You’re looking at the training to take a year and a half to two years, and then you’re looking at about another year and a half to two years of flying time building to meet the minimum requirements.”
Another company that supports ACE Academy is Sierra Nevada Corp., an aerospace and national security contractor specializing in aircraft modification and integration.
“With these guys. It’s just a general overview of the airplane,” says SNC pilot James Gregg, another academy instructor. “Basically, I’m just explaining to them the flight instruments and what they do, the flight controls, how it makes the airplane react to basically how to turn the airplane as it climbs and descends and the different rows of throttle control, prop control, stuff like that.”
A pilot’s license can lead to a profitable career.
Crystal Byrd, director of corporate communication for Piedmont Airlines, a subsidiary of American Airlines that mainly serves regional airports, noted during a session with students that a first officer at Piedmont earns a starting salary of $93 per hour and a captain, $153 per hour.
And it’s not so much a male-dominated field anymore; there’s much more diversity, she says.
“You can get a pilot license before you get a driver’s license,” Byrd tells the students. “There’s a lot of programs out there for women and people of color to be a pilot.”
More than flying a plane
There’s a lot more to aviation than just flying an airplane, as the students learned in the two-day academy.
Meeting at the airport’s firefighter training center, they heard about air traffic control, including a tour of the control tower; air carrier operations; aircraft rescue and firefighting; and the history of aviation. They had lessons on flight planning and the physics of flight; hands-on drone piloting; aircraft design and maintenance; and flight simulations.
“We’re trying to let them know that there are different career fields that they can go in when it comes to aviation, from the maintenance side to the air traffic side, flight attendant,” Airport Director Coleman says. “It’s just not the pilot perspective that we’re looking at. … The bottom line is, we need them wherever they can possibly fit into the aviation industry.”
Hannah Adams, 16, had a specific purpose in mind when she signed up.
“I was a little nervous but very excited. Part of it is because I get anxious on planes, and part of it is because I’m interested in the Air Force. So, I’ve got to kind of get over this before I go out and do that,” says Adams, a junior at Cumberland Polytechnic High School. “You see a lot about planes that you don’t always understand, so I’m here for that.
“I’m at a high school that does college courses, so I can come out with an associate degree and then possibly go into the Air Force as, I believe, possibly an officer.”
She has not ruled out anything in terms of her career.
“I have a decent amount of time left before going and deciding officially (what path to take),” Adams says. “So I might as well look at every box before.”
It’s the same for Lopez-Andujar, who plans to take some college-level classes at E.E. Smith. He has a license to fly drones and is looking toward a future as a veterinarian or firefighter.
“I love to keep my options open and see what I can do. I don’t like sticking to one place,” he says. “Just be open-minded and willing to learn, and you’ll get the best out of life.”
All for the students
Giving the students options in aviation is what ACE Academy is all about.
“It gives you a good feeling,” says Gregg, the captain at Sierra Nevada Corp. “If they are taking an interest in it now then maybe we can get them … on the right path. It takes a lot of time to learn to fly, and the time they’re doing something like that, they’re not out in the street with idle hands.”
The aviation academy is held only once a year mostly because of the costs, Airport Director Coleman says.
The payoff, in the long run, would be seeing a few of those 41 students working in the aviation field in the next few years.
“If we can get 10% of the students who show up to actually go into aviation, I think that would be a good return on this investment,” says Coleman.
“The most that I get out of working with kids is the realization and seeing in their faces and in their communication that they’ve got dreams and aspirations. The fact that they are dreaming is worth the effort.”