Updated 4:38 Sept. 25
By the time they graduate, some students at Atlantic High School will know how to build an airplane and fly it.
They'll also join thousands of students across the nation who have a head start on college by taking courses at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s Gaetz Aerospace Institute, the largest aerospace and aviation-related dual enrollment program in the country.
The Gaetz Aerospace Institute, which also includes a secondary outreach program, has since expanded into more than 140 schools in Florida, with close to 90 offering dual enrollment. The program at Atlantic High and Father Lopez Catholic High School are the only two in Volusia County.
The TESA Academy at Atlantic High partners with Embry-Riddle to prepare students to build and fly unmanned vehicles and airplanes, study weather and aerodynamics and introduces them to various aerospace careers. The dual enrollment program through the institute helps students earn college credit and learn from Embry-Riddle faculty.
Tuition and books are free, and students participating in Gaetz-sponsored programs also can receive $2,000 in scholarships per year to attend Embry-Riddle and are eligible for additional scholarships up to $22,400.
Engaging students while they're in high school helps them explore an expansive field before they chose a career, said Colleen Conklin, executive director for the Gaetz Aerospace Institute and assistant professor in the College of Aviation at the Daytona Beach Campus.
"The earlier you can plant those seeds, the better," she said. "A lot of people, when they think about aviation, their immediate thought is becoming a commercial pilot, but the fact is there are numerous opportunities in aviation, engineering, aircraft maintenance, business and airport management."
Students leave high school with at least a semester of college under their belt and exposure to industry experts to help them make informed career decisions, said Embry-Riddle alumna Hilary Stevens, Gaetz’s director of Private Pilot Operations and an assistant professor teaching the program Atlantic High and Flagler Palm Coast High School.
"There are many opportunities people may not know about unless they're in the field," she said. "Aviation doesn't just mean becoming a pilot."
Stevens sees students taking different paths within the program.
Ryan Groel, for instance, grew up in the aviation world. His grandparents are pilots, and his father and mother, Kelley Groel, director of the Aerospace Academy, also are pilots.
Students like Groel feel at home in an airplane. He even said one of his goals is to "fly really fast one day." Some students, like Kevin Walsh, who also holds a student leadership role within the academy, are attracted to the math and science of aviation.
Adrianna Hutch, a senior, intends to bring more diversity to the field, and she encourages women to enter STEM fields, particularly within aviation.
"It's a lot of fun, and you learn a lot," she said.
Students graduating with aerospace and aviation-related degrees will enter a growing field with a growing need for a younger workforce.
Employment of airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers is projected to grow 3% from 2016 to 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of commercial pilot jobs is projected to increase in various industries, especially in ambulance services, where pilots will be needed to transfer patients to healthcare facilities.
Conklin said there also is a growing demand in unmanned aerial systems, which will soon be a major economic driver across the nation, especially in Florida. Commercial drone operation will expand job opportunities in a variety of fields, including real estate, public utilities, search and rescue and more.
Most job opportunities will arise from the need to replace pilots who leave the workforce, according to the bureau. Over the next 10 years, many pilots are expected to retire as they reach the required retirement age of 65.
"As a country, we are in the middle of a pilot shortage," Conklin said. "Compound that with the number of people graduating with STEM degrees, and we are underperforming. This is a great opportunity to excite and engage the next generation."
The third paragraph is clarified to include Father Lopez Catholic High School.