SOARING TO NEW HEIGHTS: Southern Union launches aviation program

Published 8:00 am Thursday, July 13, 2023

VALLEY — Southern Union State Community College (SUSCC) has a new academic program with a very bright future for the east-central Alabama region and beyond. It’s all about aviation technology, and its director talked about the new program at Monday’s meeting of the Valley Lions Club.

“We think it’s going to be good for the local area,” said Richard Belk. “The FAA says we can have 25 students per semester. We are all filled up for this semester. The demand for this is way up and growing.”

Just in the state of Alabama, there’s a huge demand for airframe and power plant mechanics. Starting salaries in this aviation field range between $75,000 and $80,000 a year. And it’s not just for the guys. More than 10 percent of the current class is women.

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“In Georgia, aircraft mechanics are making over $100,000 a year,” Belk said. “We are way behind on filling the need for these jobs.”

Southern Union is the fourth Alabama community college to have an aviation program. This instruction is also available at Coastal Community College near Mobile, Snead State in Boaz and at Enterprise CC.

The program has been certificated since June 1. “That’s a big deal,” Belk said. “We are trying to get the word out about that. We want to expand what we are offering. We teach everything from electronics to navigation, from autopilot systems to hydraulics and fuel lines.”

The program is being taught on the Opelika campus and plans are to build a new hangar at the Auburn airport where students can get hands-on instruction.

The program could expand to the Valley campus at some point in the future. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) would determine that.

Having it in Lee County may be a setback for the Lanett Regional Airport, which will have its ribbon cutting ceremony on August 10, but it could turn to Lanett’s advantage at some point in the future. The Auburn airport is all but maxed out. Having a new hangar there only adds to this. Should the FAA seek a 145 repair station at some point in the future, Lanett would be an ideal location for it. A main factor in spending $15 million in upgrading the Lanett airport was for it to be a backup location for the very busy airport in Auburn. A repair station in Lanett would serve the entire region, and there’s plenty of space in Lanett to build it on.

The term repair station refers to a maintenance facility that has a certificate issued by the FAA under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 145 and is engaged in the maintenance, inspection and alteration of aircraft and aircraft products.

It would be an ideal place to work for graduates of the SUSCC program.

To be certified in airframe and power plant mechanics, an applicant must pass a rigorous FAA exam. The program now being taught at Southern Union is an ideal way to prepare.

Belk loves to talk about the new program. Each course involves 135 hours of instruction. It’s ideal for the student who may not be top-notch in conventional classroom instruction but loves to work with their hands and has a knack for problem solving. “Test scores don’t measure the students who are cut out for this,” Belk said.

Courses include technical preparation; basic electricity; materials and processes, weight and balance, and ground handling; corrosion control; non-metallic structures; aircraft sheet metal structures and welding; airframe systems I, II and III, and fixed wing systems.

Belk said his current class of students live within a 50-mile radius of the Opelika campus.

Current high school students who may be considering this option can get a head start by taking dual courses in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades. That can get the electives out of the way and allow the motivated student to concentrate on the core subjects. “You will be able to work with your hands in our labs,” Belk said. “You will be spending a lot of time there to learn how to do things the right way.”

Sometimes, it takes doing things the wrong way to learn how to do it right.

Belk cited the example of a landing gear and how to maintenance it. “A lot can be wrong with one,” he said. “You learn how to do it the right way by learning from what you did wrong when you first started working with it.”

To pass a course the student must make 70 or above on every test. It’s a good idea to be there for every class. A student cannot miss 10 percent or more of them.

“We want students who are truly engaged with what we are doing,” Belk said.

A Roanoke man recently made a nice donation to the program. “Rick Seymour gave us a Piper Cherokee,” he said. “It’s a 61-year-old plane, but it’s in great shape. It’s something we can take apart and put back together again.”

Anyone who may be looking at this option as a possible career may contact Belk at rbelk@suscc.edu.

Belk is in his first year at Southern Union. He’s been in the area since January. He’d previously been with the FAA in Oklahoma and before that in northern Mississippi. He has a daughter who attends Ole Miss. He and his wife now live off Moore’s Mill Road in Auburn.

He credits Dr. Darin Baldwin on having had the vision to start this program.