With the only aviation science program in North Carolina that offers a four-year degree, it’s fairly appropriate that Elizabeth City State University is located a mere hour from Kitty Hawk, home of the first airplane flight.
ECSU’s program has grown significantly over the past 12 years when the half-dozen students enrolled in it had just three minors to choose among – computer science, electronics and business administration.
Eventually, five more minors were added, but in 2014, a new strategic plan was put into place, consolidating the minors into disciplines.
Currently, about 50 students will soon have five disciplines to choose among, since the program is getting ready to offer unmanned aircraft system courses next year, joining its existing concentrations of flight education, air traffic control, aviation electronics and aviation management, said Kuldeep Rawat, Department Chair and Director of Aviation Science at ECSU.
“(The program) used to be a minor, airplane science,” Rawat said. “We went from there to add the other concentrations. We’ve purchased two airplanes and added four flight simulators. We’re setting up for unmanned aircraft.”
One person who has been asked to help research what is needed to set up the drones program is Aron Bechiom, who is currently a junior at the university. Bechiom brings 21 years of experience in the armed services – eight years in the Navy, followed by another 13 with the Coast Guard – which includes working with unmanned aircraft.
After working as an avionics technician and with drones in the service, Bechiom wanted to become a flight instructor. He decided to use his veteran’s benefits to stay home in Elizabeth City and pursue his Bachelor of Science degree.
The aviation sciences program offers courses in unmanned aircraft systems, flight education, air traffic control, aviation electronics and aviation management. Right: One of four flight simulators added to the aviation sciences program at ECSU.
He said one of the benefits of the program is that he can go to school part-time while taking care of his family.
“Part-time works for me,” he said. “Most veterans have families anyway. … Veteran students can accomplish their goals in flight education.”
With the growing use of drones in civilian as well as military affairs and comparatively few programs in the region offering unmanned flight programs, Bechiom said he thinks ECSU has a chance to become a leader in the field.
“For us and this program, we could dominate at a much more affordable cost once we’re geared up and have the program in place,” he said. “We are sitting on a gold mine. With the military all around us, we could be the leader for the mid-Atlantic region.”
Already, both private corporations and the military are recognizing the value of ECSU graduates such as Justin Waddell, who earned his degree in 2014 and now works for Virginia-based Engility Corporation as a systems engineer.
As a civilian contractor working for the Federal Aviation Administration, Waddell said he’s not at liberty to talk about much of his work except to say he works with the systems used by the FAA’s en route centers to monitor air traffic after a plane leaves an airport.
Waddell said he’s had a lifelong interest in aviation while growing up in both Virginia and in Charlotte. At first, he considered one of the two-year aviation programs offered in North Carolina.
“I wanted a quality education,” he said. “My father drove me from Virginia to ECSU. (School officials) showed me the rest of the campus, and I made up my mind. It’s a small campus with a small-town feel. They made you feel like they actually want you to be with them. They supported my passion for what I wanted to do.”
Waddell’s time at ECSU included three internships: at Washington Dulles International Airport; at Norfolk International Airport, where he also split time at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport; and at the FAA headquarters.
The aviation sciences program is also looking to change how it certifies its pilots by upgrading the certification and reducing the amount of hours for students to become qualified as airline pilots. Right: Justin Waddell, who earned his degree in 2014 and now works for Virginia-based Engility Corporation as a systems engineer.
“I was able to use my classroom experience to put myself to work in the real world,” he said.
Once the unmanned aircraft program takes off, Rawat said he wants to add a maintenance science program, perhaps in conjunction with one of the two-year programs in the state.
As a means of furthering the university’s outreach to students considering a career in aviation, North Carolina’s Golden LEAF Foundation awarded ECSU a $1.1 million grant last December. Rawat said the grant will help in five areas:
- Revamp the Aviation Sciences curriculum to meet FAA authorization and Aviation Accreditation Board International (AABI) standards;
- Develop the Unmanned Aerospace Systems operations and management concentration in collaboration with North Carolina State University;
- Establish agreements with community colleges, the U.S. Coast Guard and public school districts;
- Develop online and hybrid courses to grow its distance education programs;
- And establish a K-12 outreach program centered on a regional high school design competition.
In addition, the program is looking to change how it certifies its pilots. Currently, pilots are certified under FAA Part 61 rules, but Rawat said ECSU will partner this fall with an existing flight school to upgrade to Part 141 certification.
The change is significant, Rawat said, because it reduces the amount of hours of commercial flight training from 250 hours to 190, allowing students to complete the program more quickly. Getting Part 141 certification – which Rawat said ECSU hopes to do within the next three years – also authorizes the program to reduce the amount of hours for students to become qualified as airline pilots from 1,500 hours to 1,000.
Achieving Part 141 certification would be “a unique distinction” for ECSU, Rawat said.
Rawat said initiatives such as the unmanned aircraft courses of study will help the aviation program continue to grow.
“Right now, only a handful of universities have a drone program, so this will put us ahead of the curve,” he said. “It will be an extension of what we already have here.”
By Phillip Ramati
Photos by Elizabeth City State University Photographers
Published September 28, 2015