Georgia’s best-kept secret in aviation training.
The choice of where to receive your initial flight or maintenance training will affect your entire aviation career. The contacts you make, the quality of your instructors, the habits and attitudes you acquire—these will follow you for years.
One example of the collegiate model for aviation training is the School of Aviation at Middle Georgia State University (MGA). Offering a wide variety of certificates and majors, this school has a vibrant community of students preparing to take their place in the aviation industry.
Serving the Entire Aviation Community
While other MGA campuses also offer flight training, its Eastman Campus, home to the MGA School of Aviation, is devoted to aviation studies. When you visit the campus, it’s hard to miss the aviation connection. The Piper Aztec located near the front entrance of the school is one giveaway, as is the control tower and the runway that runs parallel to the campus.
The 22-acre campus contains hangars for the school’s 30 airplanes and four helicopters (three Guimbal Cabri G2s and a Robinson R44). The average age of the fleet is under 10 years old; all aircraft have glass cockpits. The School of Aviation has its own maintenance and refurbishment facilities and employs licensed A&Ps to keep the fleet running. They complete all maintenance and repairs except for avionics, which go to a local avionics shop.
The primary academic building contains academic classrooms, maintenance and air traffic control classrooms, and a dispatch center. A 147-room residence hall provides on-campus housing for students.
In addition to several fixed-wing flight training devices, MGA recently purchased an Elite TH-100 flight simulator, which is used for instrument training by helicopter student pilots. “We find that simulators are great teaching tools, in part because of the opportunity for immediate feedback,” says School of Aviation Dean Adon Clark. “If you’re in the pattern and there’s a problem, you still have to fly the aircraft while you’re trying to listen to your instructor, whereas with a simulator, you can pause, discuss what just happened, and then we can back it right up and start over.”
The Eastman campus hosts 739 students pursuing a variety of aviation majors, everything from helicopter flight technology to management. Enrollments are up, to the point where the school may soon establish a waiting list for some programs.
In addition to being an approved Part 147 aviation maintenance school, MGA offers two-year degrees in both aviation structural technology and aviation maintenance technology, as well as a four-year degree in technical management. Out of the school’s current enrollment, 135 students are pursuing degrees in aircraft maintenance and 25 are studying aircraft structural technology.
MGA also offers academic credit for some FAA qualifications. This provides seasoned aviation maintenance technicians with the opportunity to build their academic credentials and move into management while leveraging their knowledge and experience.
The Eastman campus features its own state-of-the-art facility for air traffic management students; the school offers an associate’s degree in air traffic management with a current enrollment of 35 students. As part of the FAA’s Collegiate Training Initiative (CTI), graduates of the MGA program are eligible to bypass the Air Traffic Basics Course, which is the first five weeks of qualification training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. MGA graduates are also eligible for Pool 1 hiring by the FAA, along with military veterans; applicants from the general population are assigned to Pool 2.
MGA is a Part 141 approved flight school. In addition to earning commercial, instrument, multiengine, ATP, and CFI ratings, students can receive a bachelor’s degree in aviation science and management, with concentrations in flight, management, or helicopter flight. MGA has 422 flight students, 10 of which are pursuing helicopter ratings. The flight training program logged 14,000 flight hours last year.
Clark believes MGA students benefit by living, working, and socializing together. “Everyone on the Eastman campus is an aviation student. A pilot may be roommates with an aircraft mechanic student or an aircraft traffic controller. Or there may be a mechanic, air traffic controller, and pilot all in the same class, so they get exposed to all aspects of aviation through their roommates, classmates, and schoolmates.”
This exposure helps MGA students to better understand each other’s work and the challenges they face. “I think it’s vital that they learn to communicate early on with each other,” says Clark. “Our pilots are comfortable talking to a mechanic on the floor if there’s an issue with the aircraft, or it’s easier for a mechanic to explain a process to a pilot. They have been interacting with these types of folks throughout their collegiate career.”
This spirit of community extends to MGA flight instructors. Many flight schools set up a helicopters vs. airplanes dynamic, emphasizing the differences between the two groups of pilots, says Colton Hummer, MGA’s lead helicopter CFI.
But that tension goes away, he says, when the two groups have the opportunity to fly together, which happens more regularly under MGA’s policy of giving each instructor two hours per month to maintain proficiency. CFIs who are current in the models they teach are permitted to trade their hours and gain experience in other aircraft.
“The fixed-wing CFIs have never been in a helicopter until they come fly with us. From that point on, there’s just so much better communication between us,” says Hummer.
Lyle Perry, a stage check pilot at the school, agrees. “Having helicopter and airplanes together makes this department well-rounded. And I can attest to that because I’ve flown airplanes for 20 years. I took my first helicopter ride about a year and a half ago, and I got a new perspective on it and a new respect for what those pilots do. I saw how challenging it is.”
Small Campus Dedicated to Aviation
Another factor that helps create school spirit is its location in the small town of Eastman, Georgia, about 150 miles southeast of Atlanta. With a population around 5,000, outside of a trip to Walmart, there’s not a lot to do in Eastman but study—the perfect environment for aviation students, says Hummer. Perry agrees: “The lack of distractions make this one of the best environments for people who want to get their academics done quickly and train as much as possible.”
The MGA campus is located next to the Heart of Georgia Regional Airport (KEZM), a small public airport. However, thanks to the MGA flight training program, this small one-runway airport stays busy. “There’s days here where we’ll have over 300 operations in a day just at this airport, which for that specific day could make this airport the second- or third-busiest in the state. For a small class D, that’s pretty unbelievable,” says Perry.
Another advantage of the school’s location is its distance from Atlanta, according to Hummer. “We’re far enough away from Atlanta to where we can do our own thing and not be caught up with other general aviation traffic. But we’re still close enough to go get experience in Bravo airspace. And Savannah and Jacksonville as Class Charlies are not that far away.”
The small campus and shared interest in aviation creates a tight bond among MGA graduates. “Everyone is here for the same thing, so you come together,” says Hummer.
The collegiate environment is also welcomed by students who want to prepare for aviation careers but did not want to miss the college experience that so many of their peers will go through. “Our school gives them that experience of coming in and being part of a university that has student-life activities, sports, and those types of things,” says Clark. He goes on to say that some parents feel more comfortable leaving their newly minted high school graduates in the somewhat supervised environment of a residence hall as opposed to other, less-structured education options.
Part of Georgia’s Higher Education System
The MGA aviation program has developed and expanded over the years. Originally part of Georgia’s technical education program, it offered certificates in aircraft sheet metal and aircraft maintenance. Certificates and diplomas for flight instruction came next.
In 2007, that technical education program merged with Middle Georgia College and began offering a four-year degree in flight management. Middle Georgia College merged with Macon State College in 2012 to form Middle Georgia State College. In 2015, the college became Middle Georgia State University, when its Board of Regents approved a plan to offer advanced degrees.
“So we went from only offering certificates to offering four-year degrees,” says Clark. “Now we’re at the point where we want to explore developing a master’s degree in aviation.”
Clark believes that being part of the University System of Georgia (USG) has benefited the school’s students. “It gives us better name recognition, but more importantly, it solidifies the academic rigor of the program.”
MGA is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to award associate, baccalaureate, and masters degrees. SACSCOC is a regional accrediting agency recognized by the US Department of Education. Of course, the curricula for pilot ratings and A&P certificates are mandated by the FAA. However, Clark says, being part of the USG means that School of Aviation is “committed to a continuous improvement process to make sure we are not just maintaining status quo but always looking to assess and improve.”
MGA aviation students can take advantage of the school’s relatively affordable tuition rates. In-state undergraduate tuition and fees for the 2017 fall semester was around $4,600. This is lower than the $6,500 average for USG schools, and far lower than $9,770, the average for US public colleges and universities. Students from the surrounding states of Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee pursuing aviation degrees are eligible for in-state tuition rates through waivers. Additional waivers may be available, including ones for recently separated military personnel.
“The cost of a four-year degree without flight training at MGA is a little over $20,000, and the cost of obtaining an A&P license is about $10,000” says Clark. “We’re one of the most affordable in the United States for state university tuition.” He goes on to estimate that obtaining a four-year degree and flight training through a commercial helicopter rating from MGA would be around $80,000: $59,820 in flight training and about $20,000 in tuition for a four-year degree (excluding meals and housing).
Outreach to Industry and Prospects
Clark is proud of his program’s ability to prepare graduates to succeed in aviation. “We teach our students not just how to perform maintenance or fly an aircraft; we pride ourselves in teaching them the business side of the house too. … They can understand the big picture of the company, regardless of where their station is within the company.”
The school has just adopted a new SMS (safety management system) program, Clark says, though it has long had some of the essential components of SMS. Students, staff, and faculty participate in safety meetings. The school has two hazard reporting systems, one for those who want to attach their names and one for those who want to make anonymous reports.
“Our goal is to have people feel comfortable reporting, whether it’s anonymously or not,” says Clark. “You need to be comfortable speaking up, asking questions, regardless of what your station is within an organization. Whether you’re a brand-new employee or the CEO, safety is everybody’s responsibility.”
Another way the MGA School of Aviation is able to align students with industry standards and practices is through its staff. “Our flight instructors are no different than most other flight schools—they’re building their time. But our professors that teach in both the flight side of the house as well as the maintenance side come to us with industry experience, along with the academic credentials to be able to teach in their degree programs,” says Clark. “It’s not simply hiring someone who has their flight credentials, for instance, but somebody who knows how the industry works.”
The school also maintains an advisory committee drawn from Georgia aviation stakeholders that reviews curriculum development and suggests updates and changes. “The aviation industry in Georgia last year had an almost $58 billion economic impact on the state,” says Perry. “Our goal is to continue to provide the workforce to participate in that development. We want to be good partners with our industry.”
The MGA School of Aviation has established several industry partnerships that provide its students with career pathways. It participates in Delta Air Lines’ pathway programs for both pilots and maintenance technicians, as well as pilot feeder programs for some regional airlines.
The School of Aviation is also working with some college and career academies to establish aviation programs in high schools. It already has a dual-enrollment program where students from a local high school can learn aircraft structural technology and sheet metal composite techniques.
MGA’s outreach extends to students who haven’t yet chosen a career path. Each summer, the school offers SkyCamp, a day camp for children ages 10 to 14. The campers investigate weather and the history and physics of flight, build and launch rockets and gliders, log some simulator time, and are treated to a ride in an aircraft.
“Part of the emphasis of the summer camp is to expose people to aviation who otherwise would never normally consider aviation as a career,” says Clark.
MGA participates in other outreach activities, both within Georgia and throughout the Southeast, to educate people on the opportunities within aerospace. “I want to let people know that it’s not just about being a pilot,” says Clark. “That’s probably one of the biggest things I hear when I’m at career fairs: ‘Oh, I don’t want to be a pilot.’ Great, there’s a ton of other jobs in aviation and in the aerospace industry that are not related to flying an aircraft.”