Aeronautics training institute attracts accolades, students

Photos by Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer
Ryan Hall of Chambersburg, Pa., wires safety bolts on a turbo fan for a jet engine in April at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics in Hagerstown.

A school in the Crossroads area is getting accolades for fighting the nation’s skills gap while hitting high marks for placing students in jobs.

In June, Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, which has a branch in Hagerstown, Md., was ranked No. 11 on Forbes’ list of the top 30 two-year trade schools in the United States. The list examined schools’ affordability and quality, as well as graduates’ earnings. PIA, which trains aviation mechanics, was the top school on the list for technical trades.

The Hagerstown campus boasts an employment rate of 95 percent, based on its employable graduates between July 1, 2014, and June 30, 2016.

“I always look at PIA as an economic engine here,” said Roxanne Ober, PIA’s director of admissions and outreach in Hagerstown.

She was referring not only to the jobs PIA graduates fill and the income they receive, but also to the opportunities the school and its graduates offer other businesses.

The 16-month program at PIA’s Hagerstown campus enables students to test for the Federal Aviation Administration’s airframe and powerplant (A&P) certification.

Aviation technicians inspect, maintain and repair aircraft equipment according to FAA regulations. Techs must have knowledge of everything from turbine and reciprocating engines to electrical systems, and from hydraulics and pneumatics to composite materials and welding.

“We’re actually a school under the FAA. … Essentially, nothing flies in our country without an A&P (mechanic) signing off on it,” Ober said.

By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer
Jeremy Stuckey of Hedgesville, W.Va., removes fan blades from a turbo jet engine in April at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics in Hagerstown.
‘Transferrable skill’

Demand for those technicians is growing as more aviation technicians are needed and as members of the baby boom generation retire.

According to a study by Boeing, 118,000 new aviation maintenance technicians will be needed in North America by 2035.

PIA provided information showing there will be only 1,600 more aviation mechanics and service technicians in 2024 than there were in 2014. In that time, there will be about 30,000 openings.

“We’ve had recent career fairs here in Pittsburgh and at each of our campuses in Hagerstown, Myrtle Beach and Youngstown, and we are finding that more companies sign up to attend than we have graduating students,” Steven Sabold, PIA’s director of admissions, said in a prepared statement.

“Some never leave the campus and get job offers on-site,” Ober added.

PIA offers one-on-one placement assistance for students and alumni.

Ober said the average starting salary is about $36,000, not including overtime or bonuses. The Forbes’ article puts an “early career salary” for PIA graduates at $52,900.

Hagerstown PIA graduates can be found from Alaska to Florida, and from California to Delaware. But Ober said there are consistent opportunities close at hand. Within 150 miles of Hagerstown are five international airports, 16 regional airports, 17 military airbases, 191 FAA repair stations and many aviation and non-aviation manufacturers, she said.

About one in three graduates finds careers in fields other than aviation at places such as Volvo Group, she said.

“You have a transferrable skill that you can take with you when you get out of here,” said Bernard “Butch” Adams, Hagerstown campus director.

For example, he said some PIA graduates are working at Micron Technology, a company that makes semiconductor devices such as flash memory and solid-state drives.

By Ric Dugan/Staff Photographer
Kevin Tran of Chambersburg, Pa., checks the magneto and ignition timing on a single-engine airplane at the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics in Hagerstown.
Back to the start

PIA traces its roots to 1927, when two aviation pioneers, Glenn Curtiss and Orville Wright, started Curtiss-Wright Flying Service. It became PIA in 1929.

The private, nonprofit school is based in West Mifflin, Pa.

The Hagerstown campus, located off Pennsylvania Avenue near the Hagerstown Regional Airport, opened in 2011, and the first class graduated in 2012.

It is the only A&P training provider in Maryland.

To date, the Hagerstown campus counts 194 graduates, Ober said.

The 16-month program is run in four semesters with no breaks. It meets full time, Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. It includes a 100 percent attendance requirement for 1,900 clock hours. If students must miss time, they have to make it up, she said.

Five full-time instructors and one part-time instructor teach the classes. All have A&P licenses, Ober said, and together they have more than 150 years of experience in the aviation field.

Hagerstown class cohorts start in January, April and August of each year.

The cost is $6,420 per semester ($25,680 for the entire 46-course, 16-month program). Additional fees for books, tools, supplies and other items total about $2,500.

Financial aid is available for those who qualify.

“We have veterans who attend on the G.I. Bill,” Ober said.