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Partnership between Nashua flight school and SNHU brings aviation careers back to NH

Union Leader Correspondent

December 25. 2017 9:06PM
Dave Planter, chief flight instructor of Air Direct Airways Flight Academy, discusses the new partnership with Southern New Hampshire University. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)

A small flight school in Nashua is preparing for a major expansion designed to draw young people into the field of aviation and bring back the dream of flying for New Hampshire’s youth.

Air Direct Airways Flight Academy, which operates at the Nashua Airport on Perimeter Road, is partnering with Southern New Hampshire University to create a new program in which young people who may not typically be able to afford to fly can pursue careers in aeronautics.

“Our intention is to make New Hampshire the center of aviation of every kind in New England. The whole goal is to bring back aviation,” said Dave Plantier, chief flight instructor at Air Direct Airways on Boire Field.

Recently, SNHU acquired a portion of the former Daniel Webster College at 20 University Drive, which abuts the city’s airport. For $410,000 the university purchased, at auction, DWC’s old flight center, tower building and hangar.

By purchasing the aviation operations of the former DWC, SNHU has been able to develop a model that university officials describe as cost-effective. It also fits into a four-year curriculum to offer a bachelor of science degree in aviation science, with a certification as a certified flight instructor.

For the past few months, Plantier has spent nearly every waking hour helping to develop the curriculum for the new Aviation Operations and Management bachelor’s degree program.

“We fly when everybody else is sitting on the ground,” said Plantier, who is passionate about this new partnership with SNHU and the chance to provide training to a new generation of pilots.

A maximum of 30 students will be enrolled in the new program next year, and the students will have the opportunity to fly twice a day.

“This opens up the program to working-class families. When they graduate they will have already been in the field for years, and will have accumulated 1,000 hours of flying time,” said Plantier. “They can go directly into the airlines.”

John Hopfenspirger of Amherst gets ready to fly a Cessna 172 from the Nashua Airport to the Manchester area. The Air Direct Airways Flight Academy (ADA) has a new academic partnership with Southern New Hampshire University, which recently purchased the aviation facilities that were part of Daniel Webster College. Hopfenspirger has been a flight instructor at ADA for about six months. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)

A need for pilots

Air Direct Airways has been in operation since 1973. Currently, the local flight school has seven instructors and about eight planes. Because of its new partnership with SNHU, Air Direct Airways is looking to hire 12 more instructors and bring in about 20 more planes.

Jim Smith, executive vice president of SNHU’s College of Engineering, Technology and Aeronauts, said that the new SNHU property in Nashua will be a big boost to the school’s growing aviation and engineering programs.

He said SNHU will work with ADA to leverage an existing flying operation while bringing forward a new academic portion to the program.

“New England does not produce pilots anymore. Young people don’t dream of becoming a pilot anymore,” said Smith. “One of the challenges that SNHU is undertaking is trying to drive the cost of education down and make education responsive to the needs of industry. It is pretty clear to me the country is in need of pilots.”

According to him, the nation will need an additional 100,000 to 125,000 pilots within the next two decades.

The first class will start flying in the summer of 2018, and 15 people have already expressed interest, said Smith.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am. We are reintroducing an opportunity that I had as a young person. Now it is coming back to life,” he said.

SNHU recently acquired a portion of the former Daniel Webster College at 20 University Drive, which abuts Nashua's airport. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)

‘A great alternative’

Tanner Beck, 20, of Goffstown, is currently a student at ADA who is also trying to obtain his four-year bachelor’s degree in aeronautical science online from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University of Florida.

“I think this will provide a great alternative for New Hampshire students,” Beck said of the ADA and SNHU partnership.

Some students attending larger four-year schools for aviation can spend a total of $250,000 on tuition by the time they graduate, according to Plantier, noting that SNHU’s tuition is closer to $30,000 a year.

Tom Gaudette, 20, of Londonderry, is another student at ADA who was planning to attend Granite State College for his management degree. Now, he plans to utilize the new program with SNHU — an initiative that he said will open the door for many youth who might otherwise pass up a career in aviation because they don’t think it is financially feasible.

Gaudette already has his private pilot license and is now working on obtaining his instrument rating requirements.

“I can see more people wanting to enter this field because of this unique opportunity,” said Gaudette, who is also eager to see more activity at the airport, which has dwindled since the closure of DWC.

For many of the students and instructors, their ultimate goal is to secure a job with a commercial airline. Now, that goal may be within their reach sooner than they thought was possible, and at a reduced cost, said John Hopfenspirger, who has been a flight instructor at ADA for about six months.

“My dream is to fly with Delta,” said Hopfenspirger, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became a pilot. “It is all about the view. It is a different experience every time I am up here,” he said while piloting a Cessna 172 last week over Lake Massabesic.

Dave Plantier, chief flight instructor at Air Direct Airways on Boire Field in Nashua, said freshmen in the SNHU program will actually be able to fly, and students will have the opportunity to become flight instructors and make $26 to $30 an hour. He said students will have 600 hours of airtime in the first year of schooling. (Allegra Boverman/Union Leader)

Freshmen can fly

Plantier, 60, says this new program will become his legacy, and he is hopeful it will become a national model for aviation education. Plantier, who has six sets of wings hanging on his office wall, has graduated 238 students into the field.

ADA currently has more than 40 active students, but he is eager to see the flight academy grow exponentially in the next year.

“We don’t train pilots, we train aviators,” he said, adding the new, integrated and real-world immersive flight plan will provide an alternative to four-year schooling while grooming professional experienced and disciplined pilots who are ready and able to work sooner.

Freshmen will actually be able to fly, and students will have the opportunity to become flight instructors and make $26 to $30 an hour, according to Plantier, adding students will have 600 hours of airtime in the first year of schooling.

SNHU opted only to purchase the aviation portion of the former DWC campus. A bankruptcy judge in Indiana recently approved an undisclosed Chinese university’s $11.6 million acquisition of the remaining portion of the campus; the buyer intends to open a satellite campus in Nashua utilizing the property next to the airport, although details of that plan have not been made public.

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