Aviation industry could play key role in West Virginia's economic future

The aviation industry is key to West Virginia's future, according to Fairmont State...
The aviation industry is key to West Virginia's future, according to Fairmont State professors, who believe it could become the state's new identity. (Photo: WDTV)(WDTV)
Published: Jan. 9, 2020 at 5:21 PM EST
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There's a global shortage of pilots and opportunity in our backyard for West Virginia to capitalize.

"We've never before seen anything like this on the planet," Kirk said.

Boeing projects a 20-year demand for nearly 800,000 pilots worldwide. It's not sure it can even meet the demand.

Some of the next generations of aviation employees get their training in Harrison County.

With their partners at the North Central West Virginia Airport, Fairmont State and Pierpont Community and Technical College train mechanics, pilots, administrators and everything in between.

Joel Kirk is the director of Fairmont State University's Aviation Center of Excellence.

"We've never before seen anything like this on the planet," Kirk said, referring to the global pilot shortage.

The entire airport facility in Harrison County represents a $1.3 billion industry annually.

While its economic impact grows, Fairmont State aviation staff suggest the industry could become the state's next identity.

Jason Vosburgh is the chair of Fairmont State's Department of Aviation.

"What it represents for the state of West Virginia is beyond just aviation itself," Vosburgh said. "It could be a growth industry and identity for West Virginia."

To take the industry to the next level, aviation staff here say community involvement, awareness and support are key.

"We hope that the community realizes what they have in their backyard and they see that as important," Kirk said. "It's an economic hub."

The North Central West Virginia Airport continues developing its $70 million expansion project. It saw another record year for passengers in 2019. It's also attracted businesses including Bombardier and Pratt and Whitney.

And as businesses flock to Aviation Way, the next challenge is to supply them with a workforce.

"This airport has great synergy," Airport Director Rick Rock said. "Pierpont and Fairmont State contribute to that synergy. It's the educational piece that's an important part of the package the airport brings."

And now is the time, Fairmont State aviation staff say, to take advantage of a growing industry.

"We're the surfer trying to catch the big wave," Kirk said. "It's finally here. We're already out in the water, we have our surfboard and we're paddling. That's where we're at and we're hoping to catch that wave and capitalize on that. We want to give people the opportunity."

Fairmont State's young aviation program still looks to recruit more West Virginia students, especially to its pilot program. Its staff says there's no better time to get into the growing industry.

"This is the best career in the world," Vosburgh said. "The pay is absolutely fantastic. Aviation people are the best people. Come out and see us and you can do it."