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MTSU’s aerospace is growing

Airport area eyed

By ZOË HAGGARD - zhaggard@t-g.com
Posted 2/19/22

Word is out that Middle Tennessee State University’s aerospace flight operations are potentially moving from Murfreesboro to Shelbyville. But why is there such a growth in the aerospace program?

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MTSU’s aerospace is growing

Airport area eyed


Word is out that Middle Tennessee State University’s aerospace flight operations are potentially moving from Murfreesboro to Shelbyville. But why is there such a growth in the aerospace program?  

“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily growing in popularity. It is growing because in the industry itself there’s a shortage,” said Dr. Chaminda Prelis, MTSU’s aerospace department head and assistant professor.    

Like many other industry sectors, companies are now experiencing employment shortages after the 2020 pandemic forced many people out of work. Airlines were no different, Prelis said.    

“What the airlines did when the pandemic hit and they had to literally shrink their operations — drastically — is they offered early retirements, not just for their pilot but for almost anybody working there... Then, they weren’t expecting the sudden ‘everybody-wants-to-fly,’” Prelis explained. Pilots are expected to retire at 65.    

‘Perfect storm’  

To ramp up an airline operation again is difficult. It requires pilots who haven’t flown in a while to go through ground training, Prelis explained. This created a “bottleneck” effect.   “Between all that, it was just like a perfect storm,” he said.    

Prelis began at MTSU last August and admitted it was a drastic change from where he was at the University of Dubuque in Iowa, where there were only about 300 students in the program.  

“The increases in complexity and the larger population in students, faculty and staff to work with has been a challenge. But I’m loving every minute of it,” Prelis said.    

MTSU’s aerospace program has around 1,300 students. About 900 of those students are pilots, while around 100 are maintenance, and another 100 are in aviation management. The rest are studying dispatch, drones, and technology.     

“I know the focus has always been on pilots, but it’s not just pilots. There's a huge shortage in mechanics,” Prelis said. “And then with the baby boomers retiring, there’s plenty of retirements were expecting within the next 15-20 years.”   

Something else that’s helped grow the aerospace department was the increase in pilot pay. According to Prelis, starting salary for pilots 10 years ago was $25,000 to $30,000. Today, base salaries are more like $50,000 to $55,000.    

The majority of pilots go into commercial airlines, while a minority go into charter and cargo, like FedEx. “Even a lot of veterans we get go into commercial airlines,” Prelis said.   

Plus, “there’s something sexy and fun about being a pilot.” All these factors have made the aerospace program one of the fastest growing degrees at MTSU.  

And with growth comes traffic. The department and university worked with the Murfreesboro airport, where the aerospace program has been ince 1952, to figure out the best approach. But Prelis said they couldn’t find any solutions.   

“Then Shelbyville came up as an option. They have a lot more land—just the airport alone has a lot more land...and they have room to expand with a second runway,” Prelis said.   

 The benefit of moving to Shelbyville would be the space. The local airport had 600 acres, 25 of which would be leased out to MTSU.  

“I would say the biggest challenge would be the commute for students and even faculty,” Prelis said. “The only thing is for students what it would mean for taking classes.”  

Prelis said they want to minimize the commute by offering more online classes and having staff available to teach gen-eds on site at the Shelbyville airport.  

Total cost to build hangars, classrooms, and runway space would be $62 million to be constructed over the next three years—that is, being optimistic, Prelis said. The decision is still awaiting approval in the legislature.   

MTSU President Sidney McPhee’s vision is that they have an aerospace satellite campus out at Shelbyville. Prelis said they’re still working through all the details, like which programs/classes will move. But flight operations will move out there.  

This means all airplanes, simulators, dispatch and aircraft maintenance will be moved out to the Shelbyville airport.   

Right now, the department has 30 planes in use, while 10 are on order over the next year. They have Diamond DA40s, which are used as primary trainers, while twin-engine Piper Seminoles are used for multi-engine training. The university's CRJ-700 aircraft simulator trains students to work in a crew environment.  

 However, with expansion comes more opportunities for students.  

 “One of the things I’ve been envisioning for the department is we need to not only talk to the Arnold Air Force base but also the Space Force,” which is expected to move to Alabama. Prelis wants to look at potential majors that the department can provide for students who are interested in going to programs, like SpaceX.   

 This would include doing more with suborbital space flights and technology/software skills. This would help students meet all their educational needs. 

 Specifically, for MTSU, “The quality of instruction and the quality of staff we have...I would say be one of the biggest attractors,” Prelis said. “Most institutions that are large, students become kind of a number. I don’t think most students feel that way here. We try to connect with each student.”   

“I would say the primary expectation is we want to continuously offer students a value-added program,” Prelis said. “We think that with this new facility we would definitely be able to offer that.”