Pellissippi State aviation training aims to close gap for women and minority pilots

Brandon Hardin
Captain Brandon Hardin is a Knoxville native and commercial pilot who wants to see more African American representation in aviation.

Knoxville native Brandon Hardin fell in love with the idea of flying when he saw an airplane fly over his house as a child.

Hardin’s dream of becoming a pilot didn’t waiver throughout his years in high school, and he went on to pursue a degree in Aerospace at Middle Tennessee State University before flying with the U.S. National Guard.

These days Captain Hardin is a commercial pilot who loves being able to see the world and the adventure that comes with the job.

Now students like Hardin don’t have to wait until college to learn about the aviation industry. Pellissippi State Community College has partnered with Tuskegee NEXT to offer introductory aviation training to teens and young adults in an effort to close the gap for women and minority pilots.

The program, which started last fall at Pellissippi State, could not come at a better time for the aviation industry. The 2019 Boeing Pilot & Technician Outlook, a respected industry forecast of personnel demand, projects that 804,000 new civil aviation pilots, 769,000 new maintenance technicians and 914,000 new cabin crew will be needed to fly and maintain the world fleet over the next 20 years.

“Every single airline is hiring,” Hardin said. “There is a huge need for pilots right now, and they need the next generation of kids to be ready to take the seat in the cockpit.”

Of all the professional pilots and flight engineers in the United States, however, only 7.5% are women, 2.6% are black, 3.4% are Asian and 2.2% are Hispanic or Latino, according to 2019 numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We need more African American representation in aviation,” Hardin said. “We represent less than 3% of the commercial pilot workforce, and that’s not enough.”

One possible cause of the lack of diverse representation among pilots is how much it costs to get started. Students could easily invest $60,000 to $70,000 in their training, from attending flight school or a college aviation program to paying for flying hours and Federal Aviation Administration certification exams.

Aviation students in flight simulator at Cirrus in fall 2019
Students in Pellissippi State’s first Introduction to Aviation class check out a flight simulator at Cirrus Aircraft in Alcoa during the fall 2019 semester.

Pellissippi State has partnered with the nonprofit Tuskegee NEXT to help remove some of those obstacles. Students ages 16-20 can apply to take a 15-week Introduction to Aviation class at Pellissippi State’s Magnolia Avenue Campus this fall.

Students who participate in the Introduction to Aviation class at Pellissippi State will learn what they need to know to sit for the Federal Aviation Administration basic knowledge written exam.

“The Tuskegee Airmen are such iconic figures in the field of aviation for individuals like myself,” Hardin said of the United States’ first black military airmen. “They led the way, and the obstacles they had to surmount are huge compared to what myself and my peers have had to go through. They paved the way for me, and I want to help pave the way for the next generation.”

While the Introduction to Aviation class at Pellissippi State does have a cost, full scholarships are available to those with financial need in keeping with Tuskegee NEXT’s mission of providing flight training and educational assistance for underrepresented minorities and at-risk youth.

“Tuskegee NEXT and Pellissippi State back me up in supporting that goal of inspiring and providing resources for the next generation of aviators,” Hardin said. “We want it to be normal to see an African American pilot in the cockpit.”

Those who successfully complete the Introduction to Aviation course at Pellissippi State and pass the FAA written exam will be eligible to apply to the Tuskegee NEXT Summer Flight Program in Chicago, which will run from mid-June to mid-August 2021.

The summer program completely immerses students in both flight training and life skill development. The skills learned during the program can help change lives and transform communities.

“I think aspiring pilots should take advantage of the unique opportunities Pellissippi State and Tuskegee NEXT are offering,” Hardin said. “There are going to be hurdles, but there are going to be people like me who are going to help and mentor students past those obstacles.

“The one thing students should know is that they want to get there,” he added. “When you get to the endpoint and become a pilot, you’re going to be able to take care of yourself and take care of your family. If you are willing to focus and commit yourself to a career in aviation, the rewards are amazing.”

Students can apply now for the Fall 2020 Introduction to Aviation class at Pellissippi State. Applications are due May 7.

Fall 2020 Introduction to Aviation Class

  • When: Tuesdays, August 25 – December 15, 2020, 6-8 p.m.
  • Where: Pellissippi State Community College Magnolia Avenue Campus
  • Who is eligible to apply: Students ages 16-20 and at least a sophomore in high school – must hold a minimum grade point average of 2.75 and have no criminal record

Students can learn more and apply at www.pstcc.edu/bcs/aviation or call Business and Community Services at 865.539.7167.

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