New aviation training center prepares for classes to start

07/30/2010 12:00 AM

07/30/2010 5:24 AM

For an industrial facility, Sedgwick County's new National Center for Aviation Training has a light and futuristic feeling.

It is a group of three sleek steel-and-glass buildings near the Col. James Jabara Airport on North Webb Road. They are arranged in the shape of a wing, with angled, wing-like roofs.

When Sarah Leftwich, associate vice president for academic affairs at the Wichita Area Technical College, first saw them, she thought they looked like the buildings in the "Jetsons" cartoon show.

Nearly a decade in the making, the center will be completed by the end of next week, with WATC classes scheduled to start Aug. 16.

The facility came in under budget, a rare gift from the recession. The county approved $54 million for it, but bidding was competitive and bids came in low. The total cost is roughly $49.3 million, although final numbers won't be in for a few months, said Marvin Duncan, director of customized training and work force development for the county.

The center's mission: to serve as a national hub for aviation education, training, and research, providing a work force for the industry while speeding new technologies into production.

And, maybe, helping the county hang on to its aircraft companies.

"We respond pretty rapidly to what they need," Leftwich said. "We want to train a work force for them."

Big companies are looking for a research capability and work force training, said John Tomblin, executive director of

Wichita State University's National Institute for Aviation Research, which will provide research and training on cutting-edge technology for the industry at the center.

"It would be hard-pressed for anybody to offer more than we are. We would hope not only to keep what we have, but to attract others," he said.

"We have everything here in one location, and we're locating it in one of the largest aviation clusters in the United States," Tomblin said. "That's an extreme home-field playing advantage here. I'm hoping the whole aviation industry in the United States comes here to train."

WATC's new home

NIAR will host a workshop at the center on composite materials and processes for the Federal Aviation Administration Sept. 14-16, with 120 international aviation authorities and experts expected to attend.

The WATC will coordinate the programs and instruction at the center under the direction of the Sedgwick County Technical Education & Training Authority.

A majority of the programs will be up and running by early September, with others to be added in January and next spring, Leftwich said.

A grand opening for the public hasn't been scheduled yet.

The WATC already has enrolled about 400 students in the manufacturing programs, and 300 in the aviation programs, Leftwich said. Several hundred more students are expected to sign up in the remaining three weeks of enrollment.

While the center will serve as the WATC's new home, existing WATC programs will continue at its former headquarters at 301 S. Grove and at its Southside Education Center on East 47th Street South, Leftwich said.

Costs of tuition and fees at the center span a wide range, depending on the program. Some costs have risen in the Aviation Maintenance Technology program because they hadn't changed in years, Leftwich said.

"Just like every other college we had to do a percentage increase to cover our costs," she said

Scholarships are available for recent high school graduates, returning students who have been out of school for a year or more, and GED graduates, Leftwich said.

Real-world learning

Not all the equipment has arrived at the center yet, so the classrooms, labs, and other areas of the center are mostly empty. But on a recent tour, Leftwich, Tomblin, Duncan and John Fowler, facilities specialist on loan from Cessna, offered visitors a sense of what will happen when the center is up and running.

They showed where and how WATC students will get hands-on, real-world preparation as NIAR researchers working under the same roof develop new technologies for them to train on.

"We get the latest and greatest stuff," Leftwich said.

The three buildings include an administrative center for WATC and NIAR offices and student-assessment rooms, a manufacturing technical center, and an aviation service center.

Among the features:

* A joining room filled with robots performing the latest welding techniques to replace older riveting technology.

* A room for two autoclaves that process composites with heat and pressure to form aircraft parts.

* Paint labs to learn the complicated art of painting an airplane, a program that will start in the spring. Students will be able to practice virtual painting using a wand hooked up to a computer.

* Four labs for computer aided design software training, where students can fit a whole aircraft together electronically before cutting a single part.

* A 200-seat lecture hall with a large door on one side for bringing in a fuselage, part of a wing or other aircraft parts for demonstrations.

* A hangar with doors large enough to accommodate most general aviation aircraft.

Students will learn the skills to graduate directly into industry jobs.

If there are any.

Leftwich is optimistic, in spite of a steady stream of bad news about aviation layoffs and threatened plant closings and relocations. Industry insiders tell her the aviation business is cyclical.

"They know it will come back," she said. "That's what they're showing us."

They also expect that skilled workers of the baby boom generation will retire in a few years.

The WATC tracks its graduates, and it hasn't seen a big drop in the numbers of students finding work even in this area, she said.

"We're being told, 'Get the work force ready, because things are going to change and we'll have another upswing in a couple of years.' And our programs take a couple of years," Leftwich said.

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