The students participating in the aviation classes at Mt. Vernon High School have already experienced more training at their age than most employed pilots. These aviation students, comprised of students from Greenfield Central High School and Mt. Vernon High School, have flown with a pilot and also visited the Indianapolis Regional Airport where they saw the Indiana State Police’s planes and helicopters in their aviation hangar. The students recently participated in a flight simulation training, as well as being among the select few admitted inside the Indianapolis International Airport’s control tower.
Prior to the flight simulation experience, the aviation students were fortunate to have a Republic Airways pilot, mechanic, and a LIFT instructor visit their classroom and discuss details of their careers. Republic Airline pilots receive several unique perks including an industry-leading $45/hour or approximately $60,000/year as a beginner, frequent pay increases, healthcare, dental care, retirement, vacation, and sick time. Pilots are able to achieve a six-figure salary by their mid-20s and have a mandatory retirement of age 65.
After hearing about a variety of aviation positions and the pros and cons of each, students were anxious to try the flight simulation provided by LIFT. The mobile flight simulator offered four students at a time to experience a virtual reality landing, using two flight controllers. Students boarded the LIFT trailer, sat at individual computers with controllers, headsets and virtual reality glasses. The sounds and visuals made the experience feel very real to the students. Not surprisingly, most students landed their plane without a hitch.
These high school students are learning about a variety of pathways to achieve their aviation dreams. Republic Airways offers a training program known as LIFT (Leadership In Flight Training) Academy to those who want to pursue the unique path of becoming an airline pilot. The LIFT Academy is based in Indianapolis, Indiana and was created specifically to help meet the rising demand for commercial airline pilots. Students can also use their high school aviation credits at Ivy Tech to pursue a degree or certification, and Purdue also offers aviation courses.
These lucky Greenfield-Central and Mt. Vernon High School students were among the select to travel the halls of the Indianapolis International Airport’s control tower. Due to security reasons, no pictures or video were allowed in any part of the control tower, and cell phones were to remain off.
The Terminal Radar Control, or “TRACON,” was a dark room in the basement with a number of radar screens showing green indicators of airplanes and other markers important to the controllers. This group of controllers was responsible for positive separation airspace for airplanes approaching and departing the greater Indianapolis airspace. Only three radar cubbies were open, which meant there were not that many planes in the Indianapolis airspace.
Students learned that a controller that has had class training and passed the exam can then be hired by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). They have to then pass a multitude of tests including psychological, medical and aptitude. If the controller passes those tests, the next step is to visit Oklahoma City for additional simulation or other tests required by their specific position.
Across the country, controllers have the same responsibility and verbiage. Controllers who pass all tests will be able to pick from 15-20 facilities in the United States and then begin their career.
The top of the control tower, or the “Cab,” is 27 stories high or 340 feet. Students took an elevator and then several stairs to reach the top. The Cab had three controllers working during our visit, which meant it was at a slower pace. The massive airport looked like a smaller, more sensible maze of runways than it feels like in an airplane on the ground. The large airport almost looked like a warehouse-size building from the Cab. Controllers with binoculars spoke to pilots in what seemed like a different language; they had their own code to communicate. The TRACON staff gives clearance to the pilot to ground, and then passes the plane to the Cab staff for arrival. Through this well-oiled machine, the pilot now receives these clearance details electronically.
One unique aspect to the Indianapolis International Airport is that the FedEx hub brings additional nighttime duties to these controllers. Around 10 p.m. each night, the FedEx planes look like a string of pearls coming in from Cleveland ready to land for their “night sort.” The planes then receive new packages from the hub and depart around 2 a.m.
During this incredible field trip, students saw the largest solar farm in the state at the Indianapolis International Airport. The energy produced is used, in part, to power the airport.
Although air controllers can have many shifts that are high stress, they have some benefits that can not go unsaid. They have a required early retirement at age 65 and have a variety of levels of income, on average from $60-$100K+. A certified controller at the Indianapolis International Airport can make $90K per year with two and a half years of training, or at least $50K walking in the door with fewer certifications.
An air traffic controller will work an eight to ten-hour shift and then be able to be with their family. A personal pilot is always on call and may be away for several days. A positive for the personal pilot is that they may visit some exotic places. A corporate pilot may be away three to five days at a time, or possibly more in adverse weather. They know their schedule in advance and will have several days off prior to their next shift. All areas of aviation have a high demand for trained staff.
The controller that gave the tour encouraged students to verbally announce yourself to controllers as a student pilot. If they make a wrong turn on a runway, they should not try to correct themselves. Student pilots should have a map and know where runways are so they don’t cross a runway without clearance and in consequence, hear from the FAA.
Ivy Tech Aviation Teacher Jack Morton states, “The goal for this field trip was to one, show what happens on the other end of the mic for a pilot, and two, to give exposure to other career opportunities in aviation. Being a controller is a pretty good job.”
Students are gaining interests in different areas of aviation. John Becker, a junior at Mt. Vernon High School, stated, “It was interesting, there was lots of talking going on at one time. I don’t think I really want to sit there for eight hours; I’m more of a hands-on person. I am interested in being a FedEx pilot. You don’t worry about passengers, you just load it and fly during the night.”
Luke Scrogham, a senior at Mt. Vernon, shared, “It was extremely eye-opening behind the scenes.”
Another senior, Will Wickham from Greenfield Central stated, “I would definitely rather be a pilot. It seems more interesting and exciting. I don’t really want a desk job or to sit in a dark room.”
Graham Rigsbee, a senior at Mt. Vernon, shared, “The tower experience was cool. It was interesting to be on the other side. There was lots of power moving the pilots like they did. It was impressive. The controllers want to help; they were relaxed.”
The aviation class is providing high school students with an immeasurable insider’s view of the industry. They are being exposed to a large variety of possible employment options and seem grateful for these hands-on opportunities.