THOMSON, Ga. — The 150-horsepower engine used commonly to fly light aircraft had four cylinders, weighed almost 300 pounds and was about 2 feet tall.
Dylan Ward’s task was to disassemble it inside Augusta Technical College’s Aircraft Technology Training Center at the Thomson-McDuffie County Regional Airport.
Although the assignment was estimated to take nearly two weeks, the 2011 Greenbrier High School graduate was not intimidated.
“I love taking apart engines and seeing all the pieces that make it run,” Ward, 22, said last week as he began to inspect and reassemble the machine’s crank shaft. “Putting it back together is where the work is involved. It’s very time-consuming, but also engaging.”
Augusta Tech’s aviation maintenance technology program and Gov. Nathan Deal are seeking eager minds such as Ward’s to keep pace with an industry that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects to grow by 14 percent in the next five years. More than 8,300 aircraft mechanics are employed statewide.
Augusta Tech introduced its first graduating class last month, after opening its aviation maintenance program in August 2013 and receiving full certification from the Federal Aviation Administration nine months later.
The group consisted of 13 new hires, and about half have interviewed for jobs with a starting and median salary ranging from $16 to $28 an hour.
There are 22 students in the program working toward diplomas, certificates and associate degrees. The training center has yet to reach its capacity of 48 students and is accepting applications online and at Augusta Tech campuses.
Locally, Augusta Aviation and Standard Aero are the main employers, but nine companies, including Delta Air Lines and Gulfstream, have joined Deal’s High-Demand Career Initiative to work with the state’s technical college system to create a pipeline of new hires in 37 aerospace fields.
Augusta Tech’s 16,000-square-foot facility includes two classrooms, six labs and a private hangar that houses all the equipment and materials necessary to provide students the skills they need to pass the FAA’s licensing exams.
The two-year, six-semester program emphasizes a combination of theory and practical application in five possible disciplines and 27 different courses to prepare graduates to inspect, troubleshoot, repair and maintain engines and frames in all types of aircraft.
Toby Hammack, 36, graduated from the program in May and has already had an interview at Standard Aero, an Arizona-based aviation company with a turbine engine maintenance center and corporate aircraft repair shop in Augusta.
Hammack, a 1998 graduate of Harlem High School, said he was told the company was “very interested” in him, as long as he passes his licensing exam.
“It’s been challenging, but fun,” said Hammack, who put more than 2,000 hours into the program.
Hammack, who is married with two children, said he joined the Air Force as a heavy equipment operator out of high school. After serving at bases worldwide, he got on an “aviation kick” and noticed Augusta Tech was opening a training center during his first helicopter ride in Thomson.
“You get answers to all the questions you have ever had about how an aircraft works,” he said.
Mike Lockaby, the department chairman for the aviation program, said the program is demanding but provides career flexibility for FAA-licensed mechanics trained in different styles of planes.
“The plus side is the training provides students marketable skills so they can adjust to the industry as it changes,” Lockaby said. “If you get let go in the engine shop, our program lets you move seamlessly to airframe maintenance.”
Ward expects to graduate in December and then get a bachelor’s degree in fluid mechanics or aerodynamics.
“This has provided me a much greater respect for planning and detail, not only in my studies, but more importantly my life,” he said, with engine parts spread across a table behind him. “I’ve learned you get one shot. There are no mistakes.”