As the son of two State Department employees, Sean Graham grew up around the world―in India, Ghana, West Africa, the Philippines, and the United States. After such a globe-trotting upbringing, who could blame him for wanting to learn to fly a plane?
Graham is doing just that as one of the first students to emerge from George Mason University's aviation flight training and management minor, based in the Volgenau School of Engineering.
George Mason students are flying aircraft and earning private pilot licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration, while at the same time gaining experience on the ground and in the classroom that will help them land jobs of consequence in the air transportation industry.
There is a growing demand for aviation professionals who can more efficiently design, operate, and manage the world's airports, airlines, and air traffic control systems.
"I want to fly myself, you know?" Graham, a conflict analysis and resolution major, says with a laugh one afternoon before hopping into the cockpit of a Cessna 172M at Manassas Regional Airport for a quick jaunt to Charlottesville, Va. "I've been on too many commercial flights. You can rent a plane like you can rent a car. Easy transportation."
The value of the 15-credit-hour Mason program, with its combination of flight training and management courses, soars far beyond the cool factor. While other colleges and universities have dropped aviation programs in recent years, and flight schools closed their doors, Mason could foresee job opportunities in the industry.
The demand for air travel is increasing, particularly in China, India, and Africa. Existing pilots are retiring faster than new pilots are entering the profession because there are fewer military-trained pilots to take those jobs and fewer flight schools to train new pilots. And there are few universities that offer an aviation program, particularly in the mid-Atlantic region.
"Those three criteria make this a perfect match for George Mason," says Lance Sherry, an associate professor in Systems Engineering and Operations Research and director of the university's Center for Air Transportation Systems Research. "Students coming out of this program will have a big competitive advantage when they apply for an airline or other transportation job."
Through the Mason program, in conjunction with award-winning flight school Aviation Adventures, students can earn their private pilot's license and decide if they want to train to become commercial pilots. For the minor, flight training hours are flexible to meet students' school and work schedules. Manassas Regional Airport, the facility that Graham and others fly out of, is four miles from Mason's Prince William Campus. There also are regional airports in Warrenton, Leesburg, and Fredericksburg, Va.
The first pilot to come through the Mason program was Harry Newton, a continuing education student and Air Force retiree majoring in applied information technology. Graham will be the second, and Adil Altaf, a biology major, the third. A new student cohort starts this fall.
As a Joint Fires Observer in the Army, Graham was accustomed to working with airplanes. His job, among other duties, was to request, control and adjust surface-to-surface fires such as artillery, mortars, and naval surface gunfire. But learning to fly in the military requires a lengthy time commitment. At Mason, ranked the top school in Virginia for veterans, he could learn to fly courtesy of the GI Bill by enrolling in the aviation minor program.
"It's a fantastic opportunity," says Graham, who in addition to being a Mason student works for a company that preserves foreclosed homes. "It's an ability to learn a whole new skill set. It opens your eyes up to a whole new world. There's a lot of career potential in it, and it's a fun hobby. I'd recommend it to anybody."
Conor Dancy, BS Geology '13, founded a Mason aviation club when he was an undergraduate. His involvement at Mason and at Aviation Adventures helped lay the groundwork for the new minor, and Bob Hepp, the owner of Aviation Adventures, played a key role, working out the details of the program with Mason officials.
Dancy is now the chief flight instructor at Leesburg Executive Airport. In 2013, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association named him the national flight instructor of the year.
Soon, more Mason graduates will be settling into the pilot seat, or operating an Air Traffic Control Command Center, or designing the airport of the future. It's runway as a career path.
"No question that this is a very in-demand job, and the education students get from the Mason program gives them a great foundation for their career," Sherry says. "You look at the demographics and the geography and see this opportunity to serve the regional community with high-quality flight training. We think we're in the right place at the right time."
A version of this story by Preston Williams appeared in Mason News on August 12, 2014.