TCAT’s aviation program celebrated

Members of the Tennessee College of Applied Technology’s aviation program gather for a celebration on Thursday at the Morristown Regional Airport.

A shortage of airplane pilots and those who keep the airplanes in running condition means a golden opportunity to enter a high paying career.

Many students are already making sacrifices in daily drives of an hour or more to get to their education at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology’s aircraft campus at the Morristown Airport.

The 17-year-old program has helped many who have had dreams of flight take off, literally and figuratively.

The Aviation Maintenance Technology program prepares students to inspect, repair, service, and overhaul airframe and power plant systems. Students also receive training in the electrical and electronics area of the aviation industry. The program offers specialized classroom instruction and practical hands-on experience in the field of aviation, airframe, and power plant maintenance. Upon completion of the program, the student will be eligible to take the Federal Aviation Administration Certification Exam to become a licensed airframe and power plant mechanic.

“Most of the students drive here from an hour, hour and a half away,” said J.B. Marshall, senior instructor at TCAT. “I was here when they started the program. I love flying, that’s what I’ve done for the last 50 years. I guess the most rewarding part is when your former students call you back and you ask how they’re doing. You make a lot of friends here.

“We have at least two, maybe three, who are in the process of working in addition to getting their license. We have one guy here today who was in the first class, Frankie Jerrell. He is retired now. He worked for Kalittta Flying Service when they were still here. He retired when they shut down.”

TCAT has three locations of aviation instruction across Tennessee. In addition to Morristown, there are campuses in Memphis and in Nashville.

“We’re the smallest of the three,” Marshall said. “We’re not much smaller than Nashville, but we cover a larger area than they do. I had a student taking a test yesterday who came in here from Elizabethton.”

Everyone is suffering for mechanics, he said.

“This is something that’s been coming on for a long time,” Marshall said. “Now, it’s here.”

A student had texted Marshall that there is a huge shortage of not only airplane mechanics, but pilots and those who can work in the aviation industry in the Knoxville area. “They’re expecting the shortage to go on at least 20 more years.”

“The aviation industry right now is paying extremely well,” Marshall said. “The students won’t have much debt here, either. The classes cost about $6,200. That’s extremely cheap. The students are here 30 hours a week, sometimes more. The airlines are having a hard time finding employees.”

Marshall says TCAT’s aviation program is the “best kept secret” in the Lakeway Area.

“A lot of people don’t think there is an aviation maintenance program here,” Marshall said. “We work on airplanes here, but 95 percent of our people will be able to work for the airlines.

At Thursday’s lunch, there were representatives for ExpressJet, of Knoxville, Bell Helicopter and Cirrus Aviation, among others.

“It’s a good time to be in aviation,” Marshall said. “It’s a bad time to be old.”

Marshall says that the program is really cramped for space.

“We have a strict program, it’s pretty hard. If it was easy, everybody would do it,” Marshall said.

Matt Lawson, of Townsend, employed by Cirrus Aircraft, is a graduate of the program.

“I started in 2009 and ended up in August, 2010,” Lawson said. “Me and a friend of mine, when we were going through the course, it was 75 miles one way to class. I just kind of fell into it. I went to University of Tennessee and was working as a forestry manager for Blackberry Farms and there was a big layoff. A friend of mine, whose Dad was in the Air Force and Air National Guard at the time, suggested I come up here, and that was it.”

Students at the lunch were treated to hamburgers, hot dogs and smoked ribs, and all the popular picnic items.