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September 07, 2022

From Hagerstown to Salisbury and Saipan, aeronautics school gives wings to graduates

Credit: The Herald-Mail, Dwight Weingarten

Hagerstown’s campus of the Pittsburgh Institute for Aeronautics is looking to expand in order to train more students to become aviation maintenance technicians, a growing field that has taken graduates from the Western Maryland school to jobs at airports from Salisbury to Saipan.

Butch Adams, campus director at PIA, the only Federal Aviation Administration-certified maintenance school in the state, says recent graduates from the 16-month program have gone on to work at Boeing Co. in Washington state, Reagan and Dulles airports, serving Washington, D.C., and Maryland airports such as Baltimore/Washington International and Salisbury Regional.

With recruiters coming from around the world to scout the students who are entering a profession in which the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects to see about 14,400 openings each year over the next decade, options are manifold. One graduate is headed to Saipan, Adams said.

“He’s never been there,” said the campus director, of the student headed to the largest island in the Northern Mariana Islands, a commonwealth of the United States in the western Pacific Ocean. “So he’s going over there basically blind.”

The PIA graduate may be going there “blind,” but he likely won’t be living there broke. The median annual wage for aircraft mechanics and service technicians was $65,380 last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported.

Explaining the need for federal funding

On Thursday, Maryland Congressman David Trone, D-6th, stopped by campus on the second day of the term for a visit. He met with students in the hangar space that the institute hopes to roughly double in size with the help of federal funding.

Adams, who started with PIA in 2001, explained the need.

“Right now, our shop area or hangar area is very congested,” he said, in an interview in advance of Trone’s visit. “Putting an addition on is going to give us more hangar space where we can space out students better.”

The institute has access to four planes and one helicopter, said Adams, standing near a white and orange Cessna 172 aircraft in the 9,000-square-foot hangar, adjacent to the Hagerstown Regional Airport. But not all the school’s equipment can fit in the space currently, he said.

Trone’s pitched $750,000 in federal funding that would tack on a 10,000-square-foot addition. The funding bill passed the House in July, but has not yet become law. Trone said he expects the funding to come through by year’s end.  

Adams said the new hangar will “definitely enable us to increase enrollment” at the institute, where 43 new students started Aug. 31. The campus serves roughly 100 students total now.

Aircraft Maintenance Technicians in high demand

William Arndt, vice president of maintenance and engineering at the Salisbury-based Piedmont Airlines, said the aircraft maintenance technicians the school produces are in high demand.

His company, formerly Henson Aviation that started in Hagerstown in 1931, employs about 300 aircraft maintenance technicians, and at least a third of those are coming from a PIA school, he said.

Of the 100 or so PIA graduates, Arndt estimates at least a third of those are coming from the Hagerstown campus, one the institute’s four branches.

Piedmont even slotted for 10 full-tuition scholarships for aircraft maintenance technicians in 2022 to work at the Salisbury Regional Airport upon graduation, according to Dale Whitmer, Piedmont’s regional manager of maintenance.

With the Bureau of Labor Statistics expecting the industry for aviation maintenance technicians to grow 11 percent from 2020 to 2030, faster than the average for all occupations, additional room at PIA may well be necessary. It is the students, however, that are looking to expand.

One third semester student expressed his aspiration about where he hoped the program would lead.

“New Zealand’s the end goal,” he said.

To get there, he’ll need the help from the profession he seeks to enter — aviation maintenance technician.

“We’re the ones that will keep the airplanes flying,” Campus Director Adams said.