Monday, April 23, 2012

Making a flying career a reality at Jacksonville University after detours: Aviation program is drawing more people from working backgrounds

BOB SELF/The Times-Union
Jeff Gerbert, a flight instructor, took up flying after retiring. Heather Thetford-Meyer and David Kanbar are both enrolled in the JU aviation program. 

Posted: April 23, 2012 - 12:02am 
Updated: April 23, 2012 - 7:30am 

By Matt Soergel

Most of the would-be pilots in Jacksonville University's aviation program are straight out of high school, making their way through the program with help from parents and scholarships.

But a growing number are older, coming from working backgrounds, coming up with the money themselves — all to one day have the chance to work up in the clouds, far above the rush-hour traffic.

Most of them have been dreaming of flying since they were kids, tilting their heads skyward every time a plane went by.

That was Heather Thetford-Meyer, ever since she was 5, growing up outside Birmingham, Ala. But there wasn't a lot to money to allow her to learn to fly. So she took a detour: She joined the Navy, spending four years as an aircraft mechanic. She got married. She had two children. She got divorced.

That wasn't going to stop her, though: She's now 32, and with help from the GI Bill and good friends who watch her kids, she's less than two weeks shy of graduating from JU's aviation program. With a number of pilot certificates in hand, she's hoping to start off as a flight instructor. After that? Perhaps a commercial pilot, or flying for the Border Patrol or Air National Guard.

And she wants to qualify to do aerobatics and to fly gliders, helicopters and hot-air balloons.

"Flying is just something that has always been dreamed about," Thetford-Meyer said, "and once we have the ability to do it, well. ... It's hard to describe."

The JU program, founded in 1983, has 150 students. Some 120 of them are training to be pilots, flying three days a week when class is in session. The others specialize in airport management or air traffic control.

The training is a considerable investment; on top of tuition, students pay for aircraft rental, instructors and gas. Daryl Hickman, associate director of aeronautics at JU, said the total bill for the flying portion is about $56,000 over the four years of college.

Students are part of the business department and take a full range of classes. "We feel you need more than just some flying certificates," Hickman said.

Student David Kanbar says the training is worth it. Still, he's having a hard time coming up with the money for his senior year and might have to detour back to his first career so he can finish up pilot training.

That would be a drag.

"I've worked the 8-to-5 job. You go to work in the morning, you go home. You go to work in the morning, you go home," he said. "I get sick at looking at the same thing every day."

Kanbar is just 25, but he had worked in construction management since he was 17. He'd supervised the building of homes and the renovation of medical buildings while earning a couple of associate's degrees.

He'd always wanted to be a pilot, though, so after getting laid off from his construction job, he enrolled at JU.

The program is demanding. "You have to study. You can't just wing it," he said, inadvertently punning.

The older students are invariably really serious about it, said Jeff Gerbert, a flight instructor at Craig Municipal Airport. He works for Aeroism, a private company contracted to give flight training to JU's students.

He sees himself in those students: He was a Jacksonville firefighter for 35 years before retiring, and he was always looking skyward.

Gerbert is 57. He had gone to JU in 1973 and 1974, taking Navy ROTC. He joined the fire department, though, after finding out his eyes weren't good enough for him to be a Navy pilot.

As a teenager, crazy about the space program, he had taken flying lessons at Craig, using money from his grocery store job, hiding that fact from his father. Almost 20 years ago he got his pilot's license, and then spent about $100,000 — while still a firefighter — to qualify to become a flight instructor. He started that job in December.

Was the effort worth it?

"I go up, it's just gorgeous. You look down, you see all the traffic, and you're wrapped up inside that cloud, and everything you've learned is on you," Gerbert said.

He's talking while standing next to his minivan with the "I'd rather by flying" license plate frame.

Yeah, he said. It was worth it.


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