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Categories: COMMUNITY & NEWS, OCT/NOV 2022

Flying high in Central Georgia

The future of aviation in Central Georgia is looking up.

By Edna Ruiz

Photography by Matt Odom

Patrick Johnny’s love for flying has taken him to different heights in his life. The 30-year-old is currently a senior enrolled at Middle Georgia State University’s (MGA) School of Aviation, where he’s pursuing a degree in aviation management with a focus in flying dual wing aircraft and helicopters. His love for aircraft and flying began long before his freshman year at MGA, though.

After graduating high school, Johnny joined the U.S. Army. He was a 15R, AH-64 Apache attack helicopter repairer, in charge of preparing aircraft for inspections and maintenance checks.

“For some operations, we jumped out of airplanes and helicopters,” Johnny said. “So, I decided, ‘Hey, I want to start flying.’”

Johnny was in the military for eight years. He served in Iraq for nine months of that time before moving to New York. He stayed there long enough to find a school with an aviation program that would help him make his dream of becoming a pilot a reality.

“I had a friend who was attending MGA and told me to consider it,” Johnny said. “When I compiled a list of flight schools across the country, Middle Georgia State was the best fit.”

He moved to the state where aviation is the second largest and fastest-growing industry, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Plus, he got accepted to one of nine schools in the country that offers three FAA-certified programs: Maintenance Training, Flight Training, and Air Traffic Control Collegiate Training Initiative. MGA is the most affordable of the nine.

“Our School of Aviation in Eastman is one of the top flight schools in the country, and most people don’t even know about it,” said School of Aviation Dean Adon Clark.

MGA helps students prepare to work for large agencies including Robins Airforce Base, Delta, Gulfstream, Embraer, and MHIRJ. About 80% of graduates get jobs and live within 100 miles of Central Georgia.

MGA’s School of Aviation Campus in Eastman boasts a state-of-the-art facility, where students learn about maintenance, flight, air traffic control, and management and get the opportunity to live together.

“Eastman is home to the large majority of more than 50 aircraft and our very impressive student body,” Clark said. “Our students that live on campus, they live, study, and work with students in other programs. So, a flight student may be rooming with an air traffic control student and can help each other out with understanding terminology. They’re able to learn from each other even in just casual conversations.”’

MGA also has a satellite aviation campus at the Downtown Macon airport for flight instruction.

There is no doubt that people who go into the aerospace industry have a very serious job. They’re responsible for making sure aircraft works, operates efficiently, and gets from point A to point B safely. They’re responsible for keeping a society running with travel and transport, whether they’re flying the plane or maintaining it. Educators at MGA and Central Georgia Technical College (CGTC) are training the next generation of aerospace engineers and offer some of the best programs in the country.

For some students at CGTC, going through a technical college to get their dream job was a no-brainer.

“They’re snatching them up before we can get them graduated,” said CGTC aircraft structural technology instructor Jeff Wells. “We’ve had so much industry move back into the airport, we can’t get enough students out to fill those positions. They’re getting job offers before they graduate.”

If all goes as planned, Corey Smith, 30, will be graduating from the Aviation Maintenance Technology program in the summer of 2023. Smith drives from his home in McDonough to the CGTC campus at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport five days a week. While the drive is more than an hour long each way, Smith said it’s worth it to train for a career he’ll love and hopefully have for the rest of his life.

“Aircraft maintenance is a great long-term career field with great benefits and great pay,” Smith said. “I’ve always been around tools and other equipment, so it just seemed like the right fit. My dream is to work for Delta and become the youngest lead mechanic.”

CGTC offers both Aviation Maintenance Technology and Aircraft Structural Technology programs in partnership with Delta, Boeing, and Robins Airforce Base. These partnerships make these programs that much more extensive and intensive so that students are already getting quality hands-on experience before entering the workforce.

“We have students who have stayed close by and work right here at the airport at Embraer, and others have already expressed interest in working at MHIRJ (Mitsubishi),” said CGTC Aviation Maintenance Technology instructor Daniel Whitehead. “We’ve had representatives from those industries come out to meet with students, get resumes, and have mock interviews with them as well.”

CGTC’s campus at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport and MGA’s use of the Downtown Macon airport are examples of how Macon-Bibb County is helping grow the aerospace industry. The Middle Georgia Regional Airport is already making plans to expand the airport’s runways and make some renovations.

Upgrading our airports

Earlier this summer, the Biden Administration announced nearly $1 billion in Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding to improve airports across the United States. The Middle Georgia Regional Airport is among those recipients to build a brand-new air traffic control tower, which will go on the south side of the airport. The current tower sits on the north side of the airport.

“We’ll be modernizing the new tower to ensure we are operating with the most advanced technology and equipment,” said Interim Airport Manager Doug Fauor.  “We’re moving the new tower to a more suitable location so that additional growth and development can occur.”

The price of funding hasn’t been finalized, but airport management is expecting it to cost anywhere from $7 to $10 million for the new tower. The FAA will need to do a facility siting study in the next year to determine where exactly the tower will need to be constructed.

Dozens of aircraft use the Middle Georgia Regional Airport every day. The airport holds several industrial hangars, is a destination for private flights, and sends commercial flights to Baltimore/Washington International Airport through Contour Airlines and Biloxi as well as Mississippi through Sun Country Airlines. The airport is already working on scouting out possible new destinations to offer customers. There is an Air Service Development Master Plan underway, where the Middle Georgia Regional Airport is assessing the catchment area, or where people typically fly the most to in our area. The information collected will allow the Middle Georgia Regional Airport to move forward in the scouting process.

The Middle Georgia Regional Airport is heading in the direction of growth and expansion. They are also working on the Airport Layout Plan, which is a map of what the airport facilities look like now along with the addition of proposed facilities – essentially, the future of the airport. The future Middle Georgia Regional Airport will include the new air traffic control tower, a new commercial air service terminal, and infrastructure for recharging all-electric aircraft. Many elements of the plan should be implemented within a year.

“We’re constantly looking at ways to make our airport better for everyone. Upgrading our services, improving our infrastructure will prepare us for significant growth and development in the future,” Faour said.

In July 2022, the Macon-Bibb County Commission approved receiving $2 million from the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) Highway Division to fund a portion of the construction of the Middle Georgia Regional Airport’s runway extension project. This project has been years in the making and the approval of the funds will get this project rolling. The process started in 2013 and took several years to complete the steps to justify the extension with both GDOT and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Extension of Runway 5/23 Project is currently in design, and the airport expects to have those plans completed by the end of the year so that the FAA can review and fund grant programming in 2023.

“The runway extension is important for a variety of reasons, such as improving safety, allowing for larger aircraft to land and take off at the Middle Georgia Regional Airport with full payloads,” Faour said. “It also makes the airport more attractive for commercial airline service to other destinations and increases air-service charter opportunities to other destinations.”

The Downtown Macon airport is also going through some improvements. Construction is expected to begin within a year to reconstruct that runway.

“Reconstructing the runway will address compliance standards thus improving safety for all of the airfield users and stakeholders,” Faour said. “There’s a lot of potential at the Downtown Macon Airport, whether it be public or private investment. We’ll be taking steps to ensure the airport’s prepared for that potential growth.”

The roughly $6 million runway project is being funded through federal, state, and local dollars. Plans also include building more hangars and expanding the General Aviation Terminal. The first floor is already completed, and there are plans to complete the second floor soon.

The future of aviation in Central Georgia is looking up. Different people and agencies are working hard to make this possible and to give pilots and future mechanics a better environment to work in and grow right here in the heart of Georgia.

“Flying is so peaceful. What you see from the ground, the view from the sky is incredible,” Johnny said. “I can’t wait to be able to do this for the rest of my life.”