A Surry County official is launching an effort that if successful, will allow local students to be trained for high-level jobs in the aeronautics industry without leaving home.
Larry Phillips, a Mount Airy District representative on the Surry Board of Commissioners, said his plan for partnering with Liberty University to provide aviation instruction at the city-county airport is economically motivated, aimed at improving opportunities for residents.
“It gives them a career path to a high-paying job, and that’s what I keep hearing from citizens,” Phillips said Thursday of an ongoing need his plan addresses.
Since he took office in 2012, Phillips said, a lack of good employment opportunities for local residents has been a perennial concern, a result of thousands of textile industry layoffs over the previous decade.
Mirroring this is the fact that average wages in Surry County continue to be among the lowest in the region, and local residents often must relocate elsewhere to improve their economic situation, including access to education or training programs.
“It would give them a career path here,” Phillips said of young people in particular, many of whom leave the county as a result of not having such opportunities now.
Under his proposal, local residents could enroll as online students of Liberty University and receive the bulk of their flight training at Mount Airy-Surry County Airport en route to a bachelor of science degree in aviation. “All of that can be done right here,” Phillips said.
“The airline industry projects a need for 112,000 commercial pilots over the next 20 years and that’s a conservative estimate,” said the county commissioner, who noted that others are as high as 258,000.
Initial step taken
As part of getting his idea for local aviation training off the ground, Phillips pitched it to the Mount Airy-Surry County Airport Authority during a meeting Tuesday night.
That group, which includes him and the other four county commissioners as members who oversee airport operations, gave unanimous approval to the concept and exploring what it would take to provide the training at the facility at Holly Springs.
Phillips explained that his concept first took flight as the county commissioners were proceeding to assume control over the airport group earlier this year, supplanting most of its existing members. A question popped in his mind then regarding the local aviation resource: “How can we tie this to jobs?”
In July, he reached out to a flight training affiliate program offered by Liberty University to explore a possible partnership in which local students could obtain a B.S. degree through the Lynchburg, Virginia, campus.
Liberty operates one of the largest collegiate schools of aeronautics in the United States, according to Phillips.
“Instead of having to go to Lynchburg to complete their flight training, they could do it here,” he said.
Facility certification needed
Phillips pointed out that his idea coincides with two recent developments surrounding the local airport. One was the completion of a project that lengthened its runway from 4,300 to 5,500 feet, to serve larger planes and better accommodate corporate clients.
“The expansion and problems that were corrected now make this consideration possible,” Phillips said of the training program.
The other key development occurring recently involved a contract renewal with Ra-Tech, the airport’s fixed-based operator (FBO).
That contract requires Ra-Tech to provide a flight school, which the operator has been doing.
“But it says nothing about them being a certified flight school,” Phillips said of a requirement for the airport to obtain Federal Aviation Administration Part 141 certification to participate in the Liberty University program.
Tuesday night’s action by the airport board to move forward with the plan for the advanced aviation school, on a motion by a non-county commissioner member, Dr. Tom Jackson — who spoke highly of it — also includes determining what the certification process requires.
John Spane, Ra-Tech’s owner, was given permission to delve into that aspect and report back to the group, which Phillips hopes will occur by March.
Apart from meeting the certification threshold, another hurdle involves a need for the Liberty University aviation program to be approved for North Carolina by the board of governors of the state university system.
“Hopefully, it will be approved in the next 18 months,” Phillips said.
Once that occurs, he believes similar flight training affiliate programs will spring up in Greensboro and other North Carolina cities.
Phillips says the advantage in partnering with Liberty University is that it already has instructors in place. After local students complete basics such as obtaining their pilot’s licenses and instrument ratings and receive other training, any advanced instruction needed to fly large commercial jets would occur using sophisticated flight simulators at the Liberty campus.
But since students at that level would have received their licenses, they could fly there, said Phillips. He mentioned that the training not only could pave the way for pilot positions, but airport management, airline mechanic and other jobs.
He said if everything falls into place, the local program could be available to students within two years.
“Hopefully, by early 2019 we could be ready for the spring curriculum.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.