The Sky’s the Limit

By Brad McEwen

The phrase “the sky’s the limit,” will soon have greater resonance in the Albany area, thanks to the dedication of Frank Middleton, a retired physician whose passion for flight has led him to spearhead a new aviation curriculum available to students at the newly-opened Commodore Conyers College and Career Academy.

While I’ve been a vocal champion of the 4C Academy since the endeavor was first announced—believing the career-readiness hub to be just the kind of game-changer this community needs—I was surprised to learn of the creation of an aviation program at the school.

In all honesty it just seemed odd to me to think that high school kids would have a chance to learn how to be pilots, airplane mechanics, air traffic controllers and the like, right here in Albany, GA.

Sure we’re home to Thrush, one of the leading aircraft manufacturers in the world, and boast one of the best regional airports in southern Georgia, but I just never considered the idea of teaching aviation in southwest Georgia.

But after recently sitting down with 4C Academy CEO Chris Hatcher and Dr. Middleton to learn more about the curriculum and what it could mean for our region, it all started making sense.

Without going into too much detail about the college and career academy and how it came to fruition, I can tell you that it is poised to be one of the most significant education ventures in the history of Albany and the surrounding communities as it seeks to expose area students to varied career pathways, pertinent to this region’s industries, and provide them the skills and training—often including college credit—needed to pursue their future career goals.

With its mission to effectively train our future workforce, the 4C is not only going to provide awesome educational opportunities to rising high school students, it’s sending a message that Albany and the rest of southwest Georgia is ready to meet the employment needs of our present and future industries and values economic development.

“I think what we based our pathways on, our programs, were two things,” explained Hatcher. “One was local industry needs for jobs from our local industry partners, as well as needs on a broader scale for the state, which fall under the governor’s High Demand Career Initiative. In that High Demand Career Initiative, really, the governor looked out 30 years and said, ‘hey, educational institutions out there, these are where we see the jobs coming down the pike. Help us develop this workforce.’”

To meet those challenges the 4C Academy has placed its emphasis on STEM disciplines, which will give students the basic building blocks to venture into numerous college and career opportunities.

“Broadly, we took a very extensive view into our community to determine what our current and future needs are with respect to skills and jobs,” said Hatcher. “That’s what drove what we put in this place. What our industry partners are focused on is science, technology, engineering and math—the STEM disciplines—and aviation fits squarely into those skill sets.

“Regardless of whether someone becomes a pilot, or directly affiliated with the aviation industry, having those skill sets will help them in whatever they chose to do. So it does make a lot of sense.”

Of course recognizing a need is one thing, actually finding a way to meet that need is something else entirely, which is where Dr. Middleton’s involvement became critical.

According to Hatcher, the fact that 4C is able to offer any type of aviation curriculum is a testament to the passion of Dr. Middleton, his love of aviation and his desire to help his community.

“Obviously we understand that we have Thrush aircraft here (and) we’ve got a lot of history in the aviation industry in this part of the state, so it was encouraging to find somebody with the qualifications of Dr. Middleton willing to invest his time and energy into this program,” said Hatcher. “Just to get somebody of that caliber, and we’ve got several in our instructor base that have retired and they’re giving back, that to me is so incredible.”

As Dr. Middleton tells it, he’s been an avid aviation buff and pilot for years, having gotten into flying in the early 80s despite not having any prior connection to flight or planes. And that affinity for aviation is what ultimately led him to champion the inclusion of an aviation curriculum at the 4C Academy.

“Aviation is just one of my favorite things to fool with,” Middleton told me. “I don’t have a single soul in my family that’s ever flown. In 1981 or 2, I think, I took a flight with an instructor and I just got hooked. I said, ‘Man, this is just fun!’

“I was 40-something years old. And I kept flying and I’ve flown ever since just because I love it.”

That love extends to all aspects of aviation, meaning Middleton—who is also the chairman of the Albany-Dougherty Aviation Commission that oversees operations at Albany’s Southwest Georgia Regional Airport—has always paid close attention to the industry. As a regular reader of aviation literature and trade publications, Middleton said he became keenly aware that the aviation industry was facing a major challenge, which is what first got him thinking about an aviation program in Albany.

“There is this growing concern about the need for additional pilots, and there’s plenty of documentation about that,” he said. “In days gone by the military supplied probably 85 percent of the airline pilots. Now, it’s down to 15 percent.

“There’s two or three reasons, but one, the military has found it very expensive to train pilots and then let them go into industry. So, they don’t train as many, not nearly as many, and they try to keep them if they train them. And that makes sense.

“And all of the post World War II boom of pilots are aging out. Plus, the use of corporate pilots in general aviation has just exploded in terms of need for pilots.”

In response to that need, as well as the need for skilled employees in several other aviation-related fields, Middleton said the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA)—which is one of the largest aviation organizations in the world—began developing an aviation STEM curriculum for high school students.

“Everybody’s been talking about it, saying ‘what are we going to about it,’ explained Middleton. “Well, the AOPA said, ‘we need to get people interested in aviation early on.’ So they set out to have this high school initiative.

“I was reading about it, and I took my daughter Margaret, who’s a (school guidance) counselor, to the first symposium they had on this aviation initiative that was down in Florida in 2015. And we talked about it. Then I met with Butch Mosely  two years ago, way before Chris was involved in this kind of thing. Butch is such as a great guy, and I said, ‘we need to get an aviation high school initiative here.’”

Middleton said at first Mosely was unsure about the possibility, but as the 4C Academy concept began to take shape, the notion of an aviation program began to make sense.

“I pestered him and he finally, because he realized this thing was coming around, he said, ‘this is the perfect place for an aviation high school initiative,’” said Middleton. “So I started looking at that and I continued to work with AOPA’s curriculum development. This past spring the AOPA said, ‘we’ve got the 9th grade year curriculum that we think is going to work, but we want to test it.’

“They allowed schools, anybody with an aviation high school program, to apply to be a beta test site for the curriculum and we ended up being selected as one.”

With the support of the state and local school system, the only real hurdle to clear for being able to implement the new curriculum for testing at 4C was finding someone to teach the aviation curriculum locally.

And once again, Dr. Middleton was there to help.

“They said, ‘to be a part of this test group, you’ve got to commit to have an instructor come to the AOPA headquarters and spend three days learning the curriculum and what we’re about,’” Middleton said. “So I went up there in June, I guess it was, and spent three days up there. We spent three days looking at and talking about the aviation curriculum that AOPA had put together.”

Despite having never done any formal teaching, Middleton’s passion for aviation, and his desire to help create another avenue for success at the college and career academy, drove him to make the decision to take on the challenge of heading up the program.

“We looked around and said, ‘well guess what, we don’t have anybody that will instruct,’” Middleton said with a chuckle. “So I said, ‘well, I’ll do it to get it off the ground.’ And that’s what I’m trying to do. I wasn’t looking for a job. I thought I’d retired.

“I’m not an educator, as you know; this is my first formal role as an educator. I’ve been flying for 30 years. I’m an instructor, technically. I do very little instructing, but I do have a certificate that I can instruct in airplanes, so that’s the only credential I have.

“And I was excited about the concept here.”

Part of what fuels Middleton’s excitement, aside from his desire to do something good for aviation, is the impact he believes the program can have on students and the many things they will be able to learn about through an aviation curriculum.

“I think that there are a couple of important things,” said Middleton. “These kids need to understand that they are perfectly capable of not just being pilots, but being involved in aviation. There is everything in the aviation industry. Engineering is obviously huge. There are all of the aspects of the logistics of airlines. There is what we call ATC, air traffic control, and controlling is a huge job, and it pays well. Mechanics, that is another well-paying job in the aviation industry. And it’s a critical job. The guy that works on that airplane I fly, to me, is just as important as air traffic control keeping me from hitting another airplane.

“The other thing is, it’s easier for me to think about math when I think about solving problems with aviation as just a platform. For example, ‘how much fuel does it take to fly to Atlanta?’ Well that takes some math. Weight and balance in an airplane is a critical skill that once again provides the opportunity to understand about physics and lever arms and so forth.

“It’s a great platform to take care of the STEM initiatives.”

The key for success at this point, Middleton said, is getting that message to the students and letting them know what they can achieve through aviation, so that they are inclined to choose aviation as their pathway.

During the current semester at 4C Middleton is focused on giving prospective students a glimpse of the many things they can learn through aviation and show them the clear paths to success, whether it’s career-readiness or additional degree opportunities that are available to graduates.

Middleton has been networking with people in the aviation industry to cultivate internship, mentorship and employment opportunities, and he’s also been meeting with others in aviation education to align proper paths for students to continue their education after graduation from the college and career academy. So far he has met with leaders from schools in Georgia, including Middle Georgia State University, which has bachelor’s degree offerings in aviation-related fields, and with Southwest Georgia Tech, which offers aviation-related degrees and certificates.

“The kids have to understand that if they have the interest they can do it, and as Chris said, they’re going to get essentially a two-year degree, college credit, without their parents having to spend a dime, and you know that’s a heck of a bargain; it’s a huge bargain,” Middleton said. “The point is, there’s ways to do it. There’s ways to get there if they want to go there.

“The point is, you can stay in Southwest Georgia and there’s tremendous opportunities here for aviation-related industry. Of course aviation is just one of the multiple pathways that these kids will have access to (at the school). Hopefully some of them will be interested in aviation. Some of them will, you know, potentially be pilots, some of them will be mechanics, some of them will be air traffic control, hopefully, and some will be astronauts you know.

“There are numerous opportunities for them through aviation.”

As we spoke, Middleton could barely contain his enthusiasm for the aviation program and the possibilities it brings to southwest Georgia and that excitement was contagious.

We spent nearly an hour talking about the importance of the aviation industry, and the potential impact of the 4C Academy, and it only confirmed my feeling that the future prosperity of this region, and its residents, is dependent on visionary leaders in education, as well as dedicated citizens like Dr. Middleton—citizens willing to give up their own time to provide something special and meaningful to our students.

That fact isn’t lost on Hatcher either.

“The fact that our team members here can have access to years of wisdom from somebody that’s willing to give back, that part is incredible,” he said. “I enjoy people that think like him, that have a long and strong knowledge base about lots of different things and I think it will benefit all of us. We’re incredibly fortunate to have (Dr. Middleton) here.”

And as far as I’m concerned that goes for the entire community.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen