BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL)- Northeast State Community College is working to address a global shortage of pilots and aviation mechanics. Part of their expansion involves a $1.6 million renovation project of a hangar at the Tri-Cities Airport, which will be the future home of the program. The Aviation Technology program was started only five years ago, but through grants, the department is growing.

Department head Richard Blevins worked to develop the program from scratch in order to pass on high-demand skills to his students. The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted the aviation industry, which he says was already a million mechanics and pilots short.

“We’re going to see a huge gap in those skillsets. A huge gap in pilots, a huge gap in maintenance technicians,” said Blevins.

Northeast State’s leased hangar at the Tri-Cities Airport will begin renovations by the end of the year, and are estimated to be complete by June 2021. A $1.6 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission made the renovation possible. It will house office space, a tech lab, work areas, as well as the school’s helicopter and aircraft – also purchased through grants.

Northeast State’s helicopter

The community college currently offers an associate’s program but is working to get FAA certified.

“When we complete this program we’ll be the only school in the United States that offers up a free airframe and power plant program with an associate degree at no cost to our students,” said Blevins. “Of course there’s some things they’ll have to qualify for. But we’ll be the only school in the United States like that.”

Blevins said this will mean graduating students can go anywhere to work on a U.S.-registered aircraft as an A&P mechanic.

The program already has countless hands-on mechanical pieces for learning. One of the most valuable may be their $118,000 flight simulator – where pilots and mechanics in-training can learn to fly, taking off from a virtual Tri-Cities airport.

Northeast State’s flight simulator

The new hangar facility will also be near the Aerospace Park development for aviation-related companies. Blevins says they’ll train students specifically to work for those businesses, something Tri-Cities Airport Executive Director Gene Cossey knows will be valuable.

“As we look at businesses that want to develop into Aerospace Park, they’re going to want to know that right here, right on the airport, we can produce workers for them,” said Cossey.

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