In the machine shop of College of The Albemarle’s new $7.1 million aviation school, a 3-D printer deposited blue plastic, layer upon layer, in the shape of a motor fan.
When classes begin in August, students will use the high-tech printer to make plastic models of aircraft parts before creating a metal duplicate on a computerized machining tool.
These are skills that employers want, said machining instructor Stanley Nixon, standing at one end of the spacious shop lined with the latest equipment, an upgrade from the shop he has used at COA’s Elizabeth City campus for years.
“Right now, our students are very much in demand,” Nixon told a group of Currituck County officials touring the 36,000-square-foot Aviation and Technical Training Center. “I may not be able to guarantee a job, but I will guarantee an interview.”
Starting wages for a machinist can reach $58,000 per year, he said. That drew a buzz from his audience.
County officials agreed to build the facility, located off U.S. 158 near the Currituck County Regional Airport, to expand higher education and attract employers to a rural county dependent on tourism dollars from its Outer Banks. About 20 miles away, 1,300 civilian employees work on aircraft at a Coast Guard base.
Seven times larger than COA’s former rented space, the new school includes a 6,000-square-foot hangar bay, classrooms and shops. In the hangar bay are an operational Piper airplane, simulators and areas used to start and run aircraft engines. Students will have equipment and tools to design and make parts out of metal and carbon fiber.
In one shop, a turbine from a Coast Guard Falcon jet sat on a stand about chest high for easy working access. Tall metal chests were full of bright new wrenches and other tools. Long hoses for pneumatic tools hung from the ceiling over wide work tables.
Graduates will earn certificates or associate degrees in machining, architecture, mechanical engineering and in airframe and power plant mechanics.
During the tour, Elton Stone – director of aviation maintenance education – picked up a student-made metal wing spar about the size of a briefcase. Dozens of rivets securely held the different segments of the bright silver piece. The work was excellent, said Stone, who retired from a Navy career in aviation maintenance.
“I had a student throw this away because he did not think it was good enough,” Stone said.
COA began offering aviation courses three years ago in a rented building in Elizabeth City. So far, 64 of the 159 graduates of the two-year program have landed jobs, Stone said. His students have ranged in age from 17 to 69.
The FFA has certified 170 aviation schools around the country – four in North Carolina, including COA. There were just over 430,000 jobs in the U.S.aircraft and parts manufacturing industry last year, according to the Aerospace Industries Association. That is the highest job count in the industry since 2001.