Lots of universities have aeronautics programs. But many of them are big, Division I schools. Fewer are small schools, and even fewer own a fixed-based operation at an airport.
Averett University in Danville is one of these few.
An FBO, or fixed-based operator, is an organization that operates at an airport, providing aviation services like fueling and maintenance.
John Earl has been FBO manager for Averett University Aviation Services since July 2021, when Averett took ownership of the FBO at Danville Regional Airport.
“There are colleges and universities out there that have aviation programs and the FBO, but they are very few and far between,” Earl said. “I can only think of maybe five right now in the United States.”
In Virginia, Averett, Liberty University, Hampton University and Blue Ridge Community College have aviation programs. But Averett is the only one that manages an FBO.
Travis Williams, chief flight instructor for the Averett aeronautics program, compared an FBO to a gas station for planes. It’s a place to pull over, get snacks, refuel, use the restroom, and address any issues with the aircraft, he said.
Before AU Aviation Services, the FBO at Danville’s airport was a company called General Aviation Inc., a multi-generational family-owned business that had been there since 1948.
The city put out a request for proposal for the FBO to fill General Aviation’s place, and it made sense for Averett to take ownership, Williams said, given the university’s history at the airport.
Averett has had a presence at the Danville airport for 40 years, operating their aeronautics program out of the George J. Falk Flight Operations Center next door to the main terminal, where the FBO is located.
“Averett decided that it would be a good opportunity for the university, the program, and the Southside of Virginia,” Williams said.
Now that the university has ownership of the FBO, it can offer lots of opportunities to students in the aeronautics program that weren’t available before. Students, who are already studying to be in aviation, can now get experience with the business side of the industry through the university.
Aeronautics students can get internships with the FBO, which provides experience that will be valuable when it comes to getting a job, Earl said.
“Say there’s two pilots with the same number of hours, and they both interview very well,” Earl said. “But this individual has taken care of aircrafts, knows how to fuel them, knows how to tow them, has interned in a maintenance shop and has been exposed to a business atmosphere. This individual has been exposed to not just flying, but business aviation.”
That would be a huge advantage in a job search, he said. And that wasn’t available to students before Averett took over the FBO.
And working with the FBO is a great way to network with people already in the aviation industry, said Courtney DeLone, an Averett student majoring in aerospace management and aerospace criminal justice.
“Pilots and businessmen come in, so if you’re sitting there fueling up the plane, you’ll be able to start a conversation,” DeLone said.
Networking is very important in aviation, Earl said.
Students employed with the FBO meet “tons of pilots who have positions flying for private companies, charter operations, aerial survey, medical flights, and those that have aircraft and fly for fun,” he said. “The [FBO] employees get an inside track on various jobs, contacts and exposure to private aviation they would not otherwise get.”
Sometimes, pilots coming into the Danville airport even ask Averett students to fly with them, said Jacob Marshall, an aerospace criminal justice major.
“A guy that has a Pilatus PC-12, just from interactions of fueling airplanes, he’s asked people to go and take a trip with him when they’re available,” he said.
Even some first-year students have gotten this opportunity, added Dev Patel, a flight operations and aviation business double major.
Patel said having the FBO is especially helpful for aviation business students.
“If you want to start an internship or start working at the FBO, that can be a great step forward,” he said. “It will give you real-world experience if you want to open up a new FBO or just get into the business aspect of aviation.”
Patel is also a certified flight instructor for Averett Aviation. CFIs are students who are close to graduation, or recent graduates, who are building their hours by instructing other students.
They’re employed by the university, not the FBO.
“You graduate with about 250 hours, but in order to fly for the airline, you have to have a minimum of 1,000 hours,” Williams said. “So [CFIs] will instruct for us for anywhere from six to nine months” to get the remainder of their hours.
Right now, there are about 16 CFIs working with Williams to teach underclassmen, he said.
CFIs, and other upperclassmen, can also get paid by airlines before graduating, if they commit to working there. Once a student gets their commercial certificate, they can interview with an airline and get a job before graduation.
“That airline gives them anywhere between a $7,000 and $9,000 bonus while they’re in school,” Williams said. “The airline then pays another about $12,500 over a year while they’re working for us [as a CFI].”
Plus, the university is paying them $30 an hour to instruct underclassmen.
“They can quickly pay back their student loans and start off making a pretty decent living right out of school,” Williams said.
Airlines do this because there’s such a huge demand for pilots right now, he said. The pilot shortage was augmented by the pandemic, but Williams said a bigger factor in the shortage is how expensive it is to become a pilot.
It costs about $55,000 to get the certificates and ratings, Williams said, and that’s on top of tuition and room and board at any university with an aeronautics program.
“Back several years ago, for your first flying job, the regional airlines didn’t pay much above minimum wage, believe it or not,” he said. “So why is someone going to spend all that money on education when they can make money doing something else?”
Now, regional airlines have “realized that the only way they’re going to get pilots is they have to start paying students, in my opinion, what they’re worth,” Williams said.
Patel is one of the CFIs benefiting from this. He’s a cadet for PSA Airlines, a regional airline based in Dayton, Ohio.
The airline is paying him now, while he’s completing his hours. And in about a year, when he has all his hours, he’ll work for PSA Airlines full-time.
This makes it much more financially feasible for students to become pilots, given how expensive the process is, Williams said.
“My prediction is in less than five years, these airlines will actually start paying them as freshmen and just pay them upfront to do all their training as long as they sign a contract,” Williams said. “[Airlines] are already starting to pay when they’re juniors, halfway through, and that demand is not going to go away in the next 20 years.”
There’s also a shortage in aviation mechanics, and Averett is partnering with Danville Community College to address this.
DCC is “gearing up” to serve as a training ground for new aviation mechanics in Southern Virginia, said Cornelius Johnson, DCC’s vice president of academic affairs and student services, in an email.
“DCC is currently working through steps to create one of only two programs in the Virginia Community College System in response to the need for more aviation mechanics,” Johnson said.
The other such program is offered at Blue Ridge Community College.
“Graduates will be able to potentially earn a certificate and an associate degree in aviation mechanics,” he said. “To ensure potential graduates can continue with their studies beyond the associates degree, DCC will partner with Averett University to offer its graduates a clear pathway to continue their studies and complete a Bachelor of Science in aerospace management.”
DCC’s program will be launched later this academic year, Johnson said.
In the meantime, Averett students are enjoying the perks that have come from the pilot shortage. But getting paid before graduation is just one of the cool things about being in Averett’s aeronautics program, students said.
Marshall said one of his favorite experiences was completing his requirements for longer, or cross-country, flights.
“It’s crazy that I was in Ohio and Pennsylvania and then back in Danville in one day,” he said. “Or just going to Raleigh for a night, or Virginia Beach, to fly there, have dinner, and come back. It’s an experience that not a lot of people have.”
Patel, who flew to Savannah, Georgia, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, for his cross-country trips, agreed.
Plus, you get to try food from all over, he said.
“We have certain spots,” Patel said. “Once you get a little experience, you know where they are. If you’re going to Savannah, they have a nice barbecue place, and if you’re going to Atlantic City, good seafood.”
DeLone said the coolest part for her is flying a plane as part of her regular college schedule.
“One minute I’m flying a plane and an hour later, I’m at practice throwing a ball with a teammate,” said DeLone, a member of the women’s lacrosse team at Averett. “I was literally just flying over the field earlier, and now I’m on it.”
Most schools that have aeronautics programs are large, Division I schools, like Ohio State and the University of Alabama, said Williams.
Averett is a Division III school, which means student athletes, like DeLone, don’t have to give up their sport to be in the program.
Of the 110 or so students in the program, about 30 are student athletes, Williams said. Overall, about half of Averett’s student body are student athletes.
Plus, an aeronautics program at a smaller school means more individual attention, Patel said.
“You’re able to fly more often in the week,” he said. “If you go to these big schools on the East Coast, you don’t get that. You probably won’t even fly for your first semester. Whereas here, you start flying from the very first day. You can be soloing two weeks into the semester.”
All these aspects make Averett’s program stand out, the students said, and having an FBO now helps spread the school’s name and reputation.
“People come in and they remember our interactions,” Marshall said. “Being a student at Averett and having the FBO there, that just makes it more pleasant and professional. And it gives us a good reputation for our name.”