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PIA takes off at Hagerstown Regional Airport

June 16, 2012|By ARNOLD S. PLATOU | arnoldp@herald-mail.com
  • Richard Rice of Greencastle takes apart an airplane engine crankshaft to check the tolerances during class at Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics
By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer

A longtime employee of a Hagerstown land surveying firm, Richard Rice was thinking of a career change back in 2001 when he happened on the website for Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics.

The training and job possibilities sounded exciting, but Rice realized he couldn’t work and still drive from his home near Greencastle, Pa., to Pittsburgh for classes every day, nor could he afford to move to Pittsburgh.

“So I put the thought on a back burner,” Rice said.

Then late last year, having been laid off after “20-some” years with the surveying company, Rice heard that PIA had opened a campus at Hagerstown Regional Airport, teaching aviation maintenance technology.

“I saw it as the perfect opportunity,” said Rice, 53, who has been taking classes there since January.

The new Hagerstown school, which opened in April 2011, has become the perfect opportunity for many.

“It gives people in the community another opportunity to be successful,” said Hal Lucas, chairman of the Washington County Economic Development Commission. “And it provides businesses in the community with a ready pool of qualified talent.”

And now, the school has proven itself a magnet in helping the county attract a new employer.

Economic development officials, including Lucas, won’t identify the company yet or say how many jobs it will create, but they say PIA is a key to its decision recently to open a facility here.

“It shows that certainly, it’s a positive influence,” Lucas said. “It’s one of the positive influences that affect businesses which may want to come to the airport.”

“The school is a real asset for the airport and the community on many levels,” said Greg Larsen, airport business development manager for the county.

School has taken off

Since transforming Hangar One at Top Flight Airpark at the airport into two classrooms and a large work area last year, the new Federal Aviation Administration-approved school at Hagerstown has taken off.

In all, it has 38 students in its 16-month program currently. They are in three separate groups, each starting several months apart.

Nineteen of the students are in the inaugural class that began in April 2011 and will graduate this August, eight others are in the group that began last September and 11 more are in the group that began in January.

“Right now, the ages of those students ranges from 18 to 53,” said Roxanne Ober, who is PIA’s admissions representative in Hagerstown.

The students come from as far away as Texas, and include military veterans, as well as recent high school graduates and older workers who have lost their jobs in the recession or are just wanting to change careers, she said.

In addition, 27 students — two more than maximum 25 the FAA permits each instructor — already are enrolled in the group that will begin the program in August, according to Tom O’Keefe, director of PIA’s Hagerstown campus. As with the airlines, the school sometimes “overbooks” its sign-ups, figuring some will cancel — but if none do, O’Keefe said, he can step in as an extra instructor.

In addition to him and Ober, two regular instructors are assigned to the Hagerstown campus, O’Keefe said. He said PIA is in the process of hiring a third regular instructor for Hagerstown.

Though the number of students enrolled to start in August already is high, O’Keefe said more can apply. Likewise, he said, applications now are being taken now for the group that will begin in January 2013. Some already have enrolled, he said.

The Hagerstown school’s speedy start is no surprise, given the nation’s economic recession and the job potential for graduates trained in aviation maintenance technology, PIA and local EDC officials said.

PIA, which began in 1929, has graduates who have worked in “every segment of the aviation industry, including commercial air carriers, aircraft manufacturers and general aviation companies,” according to a catalog issued for the Hagerstown campus.

Variety of classes

Greg Null, director of student services, said PIA has about 325 students now at its four campuses — its main campus near Pittsburgh, and its branch campuses in Youngstown, Ohio, and Hagerstown, as well as its latest in Myrtle Beach, S.C., which opened in January.

At Pittsburgh, students can enroll in a 21-month associate degree program in specialized technology, with a specialization in either aviation maintenance technology or in aviation electronics technology.

The other three campuses offer the 16-month program in aviation maintenance technology. Graduates are eligible to take the exam for the FAA’s airframe and powerplant certifications.

“Nothing flies in our country without an airframe and powerplant technician signing off on it,” Ober said.

Every student entering PIA must have earned a high school diploma or a GED, and be generally good in math, O’Keefe said.

At Hagerstown, the program has four semesters. The courses step up in difficulty over the 16 months, with classes including aerospace math, aerospace physics, aircraft electrical systems, turbine engine systems, an introduction to reciprocating engines, engine troubleshooting, fluid mechanics, working with sheet metal, welding technology, aircraft inspections and landing gear systems.

The school doesn’t guarantee job placement, but it will help graduates in their job search, Null said. And, he said, the school’s experience shows that within three months of graduation, 85 percent to 95 percent of PIA graduates are employed in the field of aviation.

Jobs are increasingly available for graduates of such schools not only because many of the nation’s aviation maintenance techs are nearing retirement — the average age is said to be in the 50s — but because the jobs require such high skills, Null said.

According to a PIA newsletter, those who have graduated from its specialized technology program in the past year have been hired by such companies as Pratt & Whitney, Flight Options, Sikorsky Industries, General Atomics Aeronautical, and Gulfstream International Airlines and Piedmont Airlines, as well as several other airlines.

At Hagerstown, the tuition is $5,995 for each of the four semesters, making the total tuition $23,980. Those who live in Washington, Allegany or Garrett county can qualify for a grant of up to $4,500 for the fourth semester through the Western Maryland Consortium, Ober said.

And, Ober said, two local companies are offering to help students hold jobs while they study at the school.

The local operations of Manpower Inc., an employment services company, and Citi, a credit-card processing company, “have partnered with us to offer the students part-time jobs while they’re going here,” Ober said. “Obviously, the Citi jobs are unrelated (to aviation), but it gives them the opportunity to work outside the 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. classroom time.”

Hands-on curriculum

At Hagerstown, PIA’s high-ceilinged work areas are in a small part of the mammoth building once home to Fairchild Aviation.

There, thousands of workers built planes during World War II. And, over the decades to come, many others built more modern craft such as the A-10, still used by the U.S. Air Force to provide close-air support for ground forces.

The Fairchild plant closed in 1983. Top Flight Airpark, which opened there in 1986, now is home to such companies as AgustaWestland and Telford Aviation Inc., according to the marquee sign at the airpark.

They are among the defense contractors that have modified and/or supplied parts here for aircraft the military uses for aerial surveillance overseas.

In PIA’s classrooms this past week, students were in various stages of the curriculum, sanding wood to make miniature wings and disassembling aircraft engine parts.

“These engines are not new,” O’Keefe said during a tour of the school. “They’re taken apart and put back together many, many times.”

Eventually, with their reassembled engine on a stationary platform outside the building, the students do the final test — they run it, he said.

“They’re pretty excited when they get to do it. They got to touch all the internal pieces, and then they go out and run it,” he said.

Students’ stories

Among the students is Kyle Collins of Greencastle, Pa.

Just 21, Collins already has had one brush with the recession. After graduating from Greencastle-Antrim High School in 2008, he got a sales job at Circuit City, an electronics store that went out of business about a year later, he said.

Now, while attending classes at PIA, Collins said, he works at a Hagerstown company that specializes in work on the interiors of airplanes. He said he puts in new carpeting and other upgrades.

“I like to work on airplane electronics, electrical systems. I’ve just always been kind of a tech nerd,” Collins said. He said he enrolled at PIA because “I think it would be cool to work on electrical systems and electronics. There’s a pretty high demand for people to work on these things.”

Marvin Kellogg, 50, of Hustontown, Pa., said he’s the oldest student in his class at PIA.

Kellogg said he served for eight years in the 82nd Airborne Division as a “stinger gunman,” firing surface-to-air missiles from a gun that’s held on the shoulder. Later, he said, he became a line painter, striping roads and parking lots, but it was “a dead-end job. I had reached as far as I thought I was going to go.”

When he heard of the opportunity at PIA at Hagerstown, “I jumped on it,” he said.

Kory Reynolds also was in the military. Now 41, Reynolds said he left home after graduating from a Wisconsin high school and joined the U.S. Army, becoming a flight engineer on Chinook helicopters in places as far-flung as Germany and Korea.

Later, he said, he graduated from a school that trained him to become an architectural draftsman. He said he worked in that field for 13 years, designing floor and roof trusses — before running into the recession.

“Since 2008, I’ve had three jobs in three years,” Reynolds said.

He’d been working for a Thurmont, Md., truss manufacturer for six years, when it went out of business, he said. Then, he began designing houses for another company that laid him off about a year later, he said.

He was working at a lumber store last fall when he heard about PIA coming to Hagerstown and left to enroll.

“I’d like to work on helicopters again,” he said.

Opening the door

And then, there’s Rice, who worked as a CAD tech — computer-aided design — for a land surveying company for more than 20 years. After being laid off in June 2009, he’s “been looking for work ever since.”

“It’s a little hard to get a job at my age,” Rice said. “I applied for jobs from Harrisburg clear down to Arlington, Va., as well as (Washington) D.C., and Baltimore. And I got my name in employment agencies.”

At every place, he said, the answers were “either ‘You’re over-qualified’ or ‘Not quite what we’re looking for.’ It’s frustrating, especially when unemployment (benefits) ran out.”

Married and with two daughters, it has been some comfort at least that his wife has stayed employed, Rice said. She is a nurse practitioner, he said.

He said he has kept busy working or volunteering at odd jobs for friends and for his church.

“I was on the honey-do list at home and going on medical missionary trips” for the church, he said.

So it was exciting last year when he learned that PIA was opening a school in Hagerstown, Rice said. He began taking classes in January and is planning to graduate in April 2013.

“I’m hoping this opens the door wider for me,” Rice said.

“I will have a certificate. It’s work I can do,” he said. “Lot of places, they want to know your education. I can even go into design work, do the CAD work for an aircraft firm.”

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