FRONT ROYAL — Randolph-Macon Academy plans to use a grant to help more students learn to fly planes and drones through its aviation program.
The Federal Aviation Administration recently awarded $307,000 to the private, nonprofit school in Front Royal through the agency’s Aircraft Pilots Workforce Development Grant Program. The supplemental funding goes to help provide 65 student scholarships, finance curricula for the school’s aviation program and to buy technology such as drones and flight simulators.
Brian J. Kelly, the director of the academy’s Unmanned Systems Lab and the team leader in securing the money, said during an interview this week that he hopes scholarships encourage more students to enroll in the school’s growing program. Students interested in manned and unmanned aviation could receive scholarships ranging from $1,500 to $10,000.
The grant allows the school to offer five, $5,000 scholarships in the unmanned systems part of the program. Kelly said he hopes to use the money to attract a company in the unmanned systems industry that might show an interest in helping to fund the program.
The school also plans to use some of the grant money to cover the cost of 50 discovery flights that allow students to fly for the first time. The money also covers scholarships of $5,000-$10,000 in the part of the curriculum that allow a student to advance to solo flights. A student can use the experience and required flight time toward obtaining his or her pilot’s license, Kelly said.
Sophomore Caleb Wilson, 16, lives in Front Royal with his family and took the introductory drone course last year.
“From a young age, I was always interested in flight and so I joined the drone program to learn more about it ‘cause, you know, I was originally interested in manned flight but didn’t know much about drones so I went into drones (with) an open mind to see what I could learn and it’s very interesting,” Wilson said.
He said he might take the third drone class next year.
The first class focused on the Federal Aviation Administration’s drone regulations and steps required to obtain a license to fly the aircraft. Now in the second course, Wilson said he’s engaging in more hands-on projects.
Most recently, the class used a drone for an egg-drop challenge to see if they could engineer a way to attach it to the aircraft and to test their skills, Wilson said. Students also flew smaller drones through an obstacle course in the gymnasium to improve their flying skills, he said. The program teaches practical applications of drone technology, the director said.
“So, it’s all about how you use drones to solve real-world problems,” Kelly said.
Program participants recently used a drone to complete a study of the algae blooms that affected the Shenandoah River, Kelly said. The Virginia Department of Equality that investigated the algae blooms had not used a drone to study the blooms on the river, Kelly said. The team only “scratched the surface” but collected data, which they submitted to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the DEQ in order to determine if students were on the right track, Kelly said.
“There were flaws and then there was some stuff that was dead on,” Kelly said. “But the bottom line is the drones provide an opportunity to do things that had not been done previously.”
The school owns several types of drones that can carry various pieces of equipment such as cameras used in aerial cinematography and LIDAR.
“So this drone, this equipment is going to catapult us to, you know, levels that a lot of universities don’t have,” Kelly said.
The grant program carves out money for both manned and unmanned systems, Kelly said.
“The FAA views all of us as pilots … so they recognize the need to educate students in both disciplines,” Kelly said.
The school’s manned aviation program also received grant funding, which flight instructor Ryan Koch said he hopes can buy two more flight simulators. Approximately 20-25 students are in the aviation program that begins with an introductory course.
“We’re trying to do that for a freshmen-level course, Exploring Aviation, so (students) can kind of get a feel for manned and unmanned aviation and see what they want to go into, whether they want to continue with the flight training and ground school, which would be flying the airplanes that we have, ‘cause we have two airplanes, or do they want to go into the drone side or maybe do both,” Koch said. “Hopefully it’s just a way to explore and it gives them something else to do toward getting a job.”
“And some of our students, maybe they are into something totally different but it’s aviation-related,” Koch said. “It could be business; it could be meteorology. It could be air-traffic control, a number of other fields they could go into,”
The academy also plans to use grant money for personnel development, to buy new equipment, conduct aviation research and support its community partnership program. The grant program requires that the school spend the money within 12-18 months. The school built into the grant award some administrative costs as well as money for advertising and promotion for the aviation program. The academy needed to hire another instructor to support the unmanned systems lab.
Kelly said he looked first at the needs of the school’s new aviation program.
“Since our program is new and I have very high expectations of creating something that is, you know, a nationally known program, I set the bar very high,” Kelly said.
The director comes from a background in aerial cinematography, both in television and film, where he started using drones. He submitted a 5-year plan for the program when he started working for the school, then added another instructor and wrote new curricula for the program. Instructors also need to obtain FAA certification, Kelly said.
The school’s “pre-professional pathways” program allows a student to enter aviation as a pilot, aircraft mechanic, engineer or drone operator, Kelly said.
“Everything that we do is somehow connected to what we call our community partnership program,” Kelly said. “So if we are teaching students how to use drones for construction and engineering projects, surveying, survey grade, you know, 3-D modeling of structures, we don’t just go out and map or survey one of the buildings on campus; we work with outside organizations to say, ‘OK, can we work with you; you may have a need for this, can we provide the data that you need?”
Program participants have assisted first responders in search-and-rescue operations and in fire investigations, Kelly said. Students also have worked with the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority to help market the area, he added. Program funding goes to help cover the cost of travel for students and instructors as they perform field research. Money also goes to pay for keynote speakers to talk about aviation.
The director received the green light to apply for the grant and put together a team of flight instructors, administrative support staff and an English teacher to help write the application, a process that took about three months. Team members organized the grant application with no way of knowing if the school would win an award, Kelly said.
“I had to think that we were fighting, you know, some pretty high odds,” Kelly recalled.
The team submitted the grant application in March and received notice Dec. 1 that the school won the award.
The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2020 added a category for eligible participants in the Aircraft Pilots Program to “inspire and recruit the next generation of aviation professionals. The grant program offered a total of $5 million to applicants.