CHARLESTON — About one year ago, Yeager Airport officials contacted Marshall University to float the idea of building an MU-run flight school on an unused tract of airport land.
With a national shortage of commercial pilots only getting more critical while enrollment space in existing flight schools remains scarce, the chance to place graduates in high-paying jobs and help head off a transportation crisis while boosting the local economy resonated with Marshall President Jerome Gilbert.
"I'm extremely grateful Yeager Airport reached out to us a little more than a year ago," Gilbert said Friday, a few minutes before visiting the site where a 10,000-square-foot classroom building will begin to take shape next spring and be ready for its first students by August 2021.
Since Yeager and Marshall agreed to cooperate in developing the flight school, MU has established partnerships with Tri-State Airport and Mountwest Community and Technical College to build an aircraft maintenance training center at the Huntington airport. Students taking part in that two-year program will receive associate degrees.
Also, in collaboration with Southern Utah University, the nation's largest four-year helicopter flight training center, MU students seeking bachelor's degrees in rotary wing flight would receive hands-on training at the flight school at Yeager and attend academic classes at Marshall's South Charleston campus.
Yeager Airport recently completed construction of a secure access road and utility corridor to the site of the planned MU flight school, located at the end of a taxiway and general aviation runway abandoned several years ago.
Academic classes for the MU fixed wing flight school at Yeager, and other aviation specialties, will be housed in existing classroom buildings at Marshall's South Charleston campus. Construction is expected to begin at the South Charleston campus in six to nine months on a dormitory with food service to accommodate about 50 students, according to Gilbert.
In addition to holding a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the site of the planned flight school, an Aerospace Industry Partnership Compact was signed by Gilbert and other collaborators in developing the flight school at Yeager. The pact calls on all who sign it to support the MU-Yeager aviation initiative to the best of their abilities, without committing to specific sums, for the next two years, when the document is up for review and renewal.
Those signing in addition to the Marshall president were state Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch, state Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine and Yeager Airport Director Terry Sayre.
"I'm excited to add a new dimension to our academic program that is already attracting interest from prospective students," Gilbert said after signing the pact. The MU president said he looked forward to developing "a larger presence in the Charleston area and growing good jobs across West Virginia."
"This has been a great collaboration," said Gaunch. "It shows we can get so much done when we put our differences aside and work together. Everyone here is on the same page and has the same goals in mind. That gets things done."
Gaunch said the Yeager-Marshall partnership will produce well-trained people to grow "a fledgling but thriving aerospace industry" in West Virginia, and help diversify the state's economy in the process.
"Bringing 200-300 students a year from across the country to Yeager Airport and South Charleston will be an economic boost for the area," said Sayre.
"It's truly an innovative project and a huge deal for Charleston and Kanawha County," said Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper, who added, "As of today, we are part of Herd Nation."