By MELISSA CROCKETT MESKE
Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright had scientifically experimented with the concepts of flight as early as 1899. It was the genius and vision of the Wright Brothers leading this innovation that would eventually see humans take to the skies and fly.
The glider experiments on the Outer Banks of North Carolina led the Wright Brothers to solve the problem of sustained lift, and more importantly, how to control an aircraft while in flight. With over a thousand glides from atop Big Kill Devil Hill, the Wrights made themselves the first true pilots.
Before they ever attempted powered flight, the Wright brothers were experts in the air. Wilbur Wright’s insightful words: “It is possible to fly without motors, but not without knowledge and skill.” But next, the Wrights knew they had to figure out how to power their aircraft.
Now, 125 years since the Wrights’ first days, it is West Star Aviation now taking the lead, launching another industry innovation, catalyzed by need, fueled by genius and vision.
Brian Bauwens, West Star Aviation’s general manager, shared some stark numbers during his remarks on Jan. 16 as the newly formed West Star Aviation Academy made its official debut.
As a part of the open house and ribbon cutting celebration that also introduced the students of the Academy’s inaugural class, Bauwens said, “The number one need today is technicians. We saw a shortage of between 17,000 and 18,000 skilled workers for aircraft maintenance by the end of 2023. By 2027, that number is speculated to be as high as 48,000.” It was this industry-wide workforce crisis that catalyzed the need, and the start of, West Star Aviation Academy.
There are 25 students in WSAA’s first aircraft maintenance technician (AMT) apprenticeship class. The recruitment process that had started just months ago had 140 applications received, Bauwens further noted. Weeding down to 25 came through an extensive application review process that also included individual interviews, competency testing, and even some hands-on.
“These individuals will earn wages and benefits while undergoing an intensive seven-and-a-half-month curriculum, training, and job shadowing journey to achieve their FAA licenses,” explained Bauwens. “After graduation, their wages will increase to the market standards, and they will begin working while continuing to receive ongoing training.
“When the group finishes the academy training, it will line up at the end of the school year at our local high schools,” he further noted. “This will give the graduating classes an option to get further education and stay local, in this area.”
The goal of WSAA is to produce a highly skilled and work-ready pool of FAA-licensed aircraft maintenance technicians while removing the barriers associated with gaining employment while fulfilling the educational and licensing requirements as provided by this accelerated program. West Star Aviation has partnered with Southwestern Illinois College (SWIC) to ensure this program’s success as well as its accreditation fulfillment.
Congresswoman Nikki Budzinski shared with attendees at the Jan. 16 celebration her enthusiastic support for what West Star is doing by launching this academy to address its workforce and industry needs. “I thank West Star Aviation for the incredible opportunity to be here to help celebrate this in-house academy you’ve created. This is some of the more important work I’ve been able to prioritize in Congress as well.
“This intersection between giving people great opportunities to get into good-paying jobs here locally and getting that training is really some of the most important work we can be doing in central and southern Illinois. And you’re doing it with SWIC,” Budzinski added. “You’re giving young people a chance to get skills and on-the-job training on-site right here without the college debt.”
Budzinski then addressed the group of 25 student apprentices, saying, “I want to say congratulations to the students. You’re the inaugural group – so no pressure! But you’ll no doubt be fabulous, and we know at the end of this road what this will mean is a good paying job for you, which is really what all of us want.”
Allen McReynolds also spoke at the event. He is West Star Aviation’s chief operating officer. “I had the fortune of coming on and catching the tailwind of this all coming together and being here today to represent the work of a lot of other people. So, thank you all very much. The academy is certainly of strategic value, not only to West Star, but also to the local community. We’re investing back into the place where we serve.
“It’s also an investment to the industry, opening doors to folks that may not otherwise have had the opportunity or the means to come into the industry to pursue a career in aircraft maintenance,” McReynolds said further. “West Star is the largest, most capable business aviation MRO in the U.S., and with that comes an outsized requirement for hiring. We’re growing at a pace that’s faster and bigger than the industry as a whole, and so our hiring needs are greater than the industry as a whole. When you couple that with the industry shortage, we’ve got a challenge ahead of us. We knew that we needed to open a new conduit of technicians.”
West Star Aviation’s CEO, Jim Rankin, pointed out that the Academy joins an impressive list of innovative things done at WSA every day. “We do interiors that blow people’s minds. We do paint jobs that anybody would be proud to call their own. But this is something that’s really innovative, and a part of the industry that really needs innovation.”
Rankin also turned some of his comments toward the inaugural class of apprentices, saying, “You’re embarking on a really unique journey. Nobody in the industry is doing what you all are going to be doing. You’re already employees with the company, you’re learning from day one, you’re learning how we do things so that when you’re on the floor working with our customers on the first day, you know exactly what you’re doing and how West Star likes to have it done. You use the West Star techniques, systems, computer systems, all from day one. Nobody in the industry is doing that.”
“The other thing that I’ll say, though, is it’s hard,” Rankin added as he continued to address the students. “It’s really technical. There’s a lot of stuff you’re going to have to learn. Do not fall behind. Make sure, before you go to bed at night, that you understand the material that was presented that day. Don’t think you’ll catch up tomorrow, because tomorrow you’re going to get just as much as you got today. Please keep ahead of it. The best advice I can give you: Help each other. If you find somebody that’s struggling on a certain thing, help them out. There’s plenty of experts. We’ve got 500 experts all around this facility. Please find those experts if you need it and help each other out.
Rankin then wrapped up his comments to the apprentices by adding: “The last thing I’ll say is always, always, always, if you haven’t heard anything today, please hear this. Be safe. You have to be safe in everything that you do. People really are trusting you. They’re getting in airplanes like this and they’re going to 40,000 feet, and the work that you do is going to be at 40,000 feet. It’s not the time to find out you did it wrong.” He also invited the student apprentices to stay, or come back, to “retire at West Star.”
Retired Congressman Jerry Costello was among the attendees at this celebratory gathering. During his nearly 25-year tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives representing Illinois’ 12th district, Costello served on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee as well as the Science, Space and Technology Committee. He further served as the ranking member and chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee.
Talking with the Illinois Business Journal before the event got underway, he noted that this program would be providing “wonderful opportunities for its apprentices, the industry, and the community. This is such an innovative partnership between West Star Aviation and the local community college.”
On Jan. 16, Hangar 21 at West Star Aviation’s East Alton facility at St. Louis Regional Airport was full of those who all want to see this innovative, local initiative take flight and witness each student’s aspirations soar. The Wright Brothers might have been first in flight, but West Star Aviation Academy graduates will experience a truly unique first in learning what they need to keep the vision soaring.
(Editor’s note: This story also appears in the February 2024 print edition of the Illinois Business Journal.)