The Commonwealth of Kentucky slogan is “Unbridled Spirit”. That reference doesn’t just speak to the state’s renowned equine industry, and it is probably interpreted by some as Unbridled “Spirits” because Kentucky is also the worlds supplier of Bourbon whiskey. But after learning about aviation education programs in The Commonwealth, I would argue that Unbridled Spirit best describes a bunch of deeply dedicated aviation educators and volunteers we met this week.

Kentucky boasts that there are more youngsters studying aviation and aerospace in this state than anywhere else in the country – and that it is all S.T. E. M. based. What I found most interesting is that the programs we learned about were complimentary, connected and don’t compete – they actually feed each other.

My AOPA headquarters colleagues, V.P., Michelle Peterson and her side-kick, Lauren Otto joined me in Lexington for a couple of days of familiarization about aviation education in Kentucky. We began at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky where every summer the AMK sponsors Aviation Camps of Kentucky. Students are enrolled at three levels – Level 1 (Ages 10-11), Level 2 (Ages 12-13) and Level 3 (Ages 14-16). The 2-day camps are packed with a rigorous program that introduces youngsters to aviation. Camps are held at the Museum on Bluegrass Airport in Lexington and at other locations throughout the state. Since 1996 there have been over 4,000 children enrolled in two intense days of math, the science of aeronautics, map reading, flight planning, a half-hour of flight training and more.

Our next stop was at Capitol City Airport in Frankfort, the home of The Kentucky Institute for Aerospace Education (KIAE). Founder and CEO, Dr. Tim Smith, some of his Board Members and volunteers provided us with astonishing insight into its mission to improve student learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and create career pathways into aviation and aerospace throughout Kentucky. Students can transition into college and/or career readiness programs. The KIAE program now has agreements with Eastern Kentucky University, Morehead State University, The University of Kentucky and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, allowing students to receive college credit for their studies. To date, KIAE has established accredited aviation learning programs in 18 public school districts across the state and is now receiving requests from other states to assist them is setting up similar programs.

Eastern Kentucky University at Richmond began establishing higher learning programs in aviation management and flight training in the 80’s. I was privileged to serve on an EKU Aviation Advisory Committee as then, Dr. Wilma Walker, was working to establish the aviation curriculum. When the University was granted approval for a minor in aviation in 1984, 18 students enrolled; today there are more than 150 enrolled in aviation flight and management courses. EKU’s professional flight option is the only FAA-approved university flight program in Kentucky. The University also manages the FBO at Madison County Airport.

Our two-day Kentucky learning adventure concluded with a marvelous and inspiring visit with Kentucky’s 2009 National Flight Instructor of the Year… the incomparable Arlynn McMahon of Aero Tech at LEX. Among a very long list of Arlynn’s accomplishments is a “Teen Aviation Camp” at Aero Tech. We wanted to learn more about it. Arlynn has established an all-summer (while school is out) aviation home (my words) for teens. Essentially a place they can come to at the airport where they can gather with a members-only peer group of other teens interested in exploring aviation. Initially, each summer’s Teen Aviation Camp orientation begins with about 35 teens and their parents. Perimeters and objectives are set… afterwards, the youngsters themselves are involved with somewhat informal activities. Aero Tech provides a welcoming, “safe place” where students can learn about aviation – and they can get dual flight instruction if they like – most do!

As we all are seeking ways to interest others in General Aviation and to increase the pilot population, I believe the learning programs in Kentucky can be a model of how to proceed and how to succeed. The key ingredient is passionate and very dedicated people like we met everywhere we went. We never heard a negative word and their enthusiasm was contagious.

  • Melissa Young

    Thank you for your comments. As a mother whose son is in the KAI in Frankfort, I am so thankful for the commitment Dr. Smith has made to STEM here in KY. I am also thankful for the opportunity he is providing the students here who have an interest in aviation.

  • Danny Walker

    Bob, Thanks so much for this excellent article on KIAE. Our airport is an active supporter of the program and our local (Muhlenberg County) school. This program continues to grow with leaps and bounds and with support from AOPA like we have been receiving, it should continue into the future.
    As a Kentucky Aviation Association Board Member, I would also like to extend my most sincere thanks for the help and support you extend to this Association.

  • Charles

    I am an Aero Tech student myself and have to say that it is probably one if the best independent flight schools in the USA. Arlynn, Charlie, Don, and everyone else there are just the greatest people.

    • Bob Minter

      Thanks Charles… I couldn’t agree more!