On a typical day, students in the Aviation Technology Program at the Burlington Technical Center might study avionics, metallurgy, non-destructive inspection, composite inspection, welding, heat treatment, aerodynamics, flight physics, weight and balance, aircraft hardware, aircraft safety, and federal aviation regulations.
And that's all just at the high-school level.
“If you can think about it, it's pretty much taught here,” said program founder Richard Sylvester. In 1990, Sylvester created a training program that would teach students a wide variety of skills in the field of aviation technology. Today, nearly two decades later, the program is still going strong.
“We're at pretty much 100 percent placement right now, “ said Sylvester, noting that most successful graduates immediately find employment as aviation technicians. For an 18 or 19 year-old graduate, that could mean a job with full benefits and a starting wage of 18 dollars an hour, possibly more. “Not to coin a pun, but the sky's the limit on that,” he joked.
The Aviation Technology Program was certified in 1994 and has both a high school component and a college component. The program works with students from ten high schools across Chittenden County, in addition to college students from VT Tech. Students who complete the program can even sign up for further training in Airframe and Powerplant systems at the program's testing facility, where designated maintenance examiners can grant an A&P license on the spot.
According to Sylvester, the aviation industry has experienced massive growth in recent years and there is currently a tremendous need for skilled technicians. “We just can't keep up with the demand,” he said. “A lot of people maintaining the fleet of aircraft are Vietnam veterans. And basically, they're looking at retirement.”
“If every single school was at 100 percent capacity and we were turning out students that passed every single exam within a timeframe of one year, every year we'd be turning out a shortfall of probably about five to six thousand technicians.”
One of the main reasons for the shortfall has been the cost of training technicians. Aircraft components don't come cheap, and it's hard to keep up to date with the latest technological developments. Fortunately, Sylvester has managed to keep his students well supplied through the help of donations from the military, surplus agencies, and other organizations. Past donations include engine parts from the Vermont Air National Guard, two helicopters from the Vermont Army National guard, and an entire business jet from the Federal Aviation Administration, flown in directly from Oklahoma City by the FBI.
“They just handed me the keys and said, 'Okay - it's all yours!'” laughed Sylvester.
In spite of the difficulties, the Aviation Technology Program remains determined to meet the demand for more technicians. In a bid to increase their student capacity, they have planned to construct a brand new facility at the Burlington International Airport. The new building will house the high school section of the program, along with the courses dedicated to aeronautical management technology and avionics. In addition, a new flight academy will also be created, a place where the program hopes to train a new generation of private and commercial pilots.
It is estimated that the expansion will allow the program to triple the number of enrolled students over the next few years. Moreover, the program will soon be able to accept students from all over the state. Housing options are already being arranged with the help of VT Tech.
For Richard Sylvester, this hopefully marks the beginning of a new chapter for the Aviation Technology Program. In the past, the program was forced to survive largely on word of month, and Sylvester believes that the new facility will help increase exposure for the program and the opportunities it offers. Even now, not everyone is fully aware of the presence of the aviation industry within Vermont.
“Here's something that's happening right next door,” said Sylvester. “And people don't even realize it!”
Sylvester is pleased with the success of the program and of all the students he has trained. He notes with some pride that all of the technicians at local charter company Heritage Flight are graduates of his classes. For now, Sylvester is eying the future.
“We're looking to do a lot with this new facility and really get the word out that, yes, we're alive and well – and we are turning out number-one technicians!”