When Doug Williams became director of the Community College of Baltimore County's aviation program in 1996, it had a dozen students.
Today, more than 400 students are receiving training to become air traffic controllers, dispatchers, pilots and flight attendants at a time when demand for skilled workers is high.
One reason: In August 1981, President Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and those hired to replace them are nearing retirement. The number of certified air traffic controllers, as of August, is at a 27-year low, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association.
Airlines are also projecting a global increase in passengers, climbing back from a downturn after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to government and industry reports.
"The aviation industry is really booming," Williams said. "A lot of students have jobs before they graduate."
The two-year aviation technology program, started in 1974, offers six associate of applied science degree programs on its Catonsville campus, including air traffic control, aircraft dispatcher, flight operations management and three professional pilot degrees.
Graduates have taken jobs as air traffic controllers in 32 states, become pilots for dozens of airlines and also fly military and corporate planes, Williams said.
The school's proximity to several airports, including Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, is beneficial because students get access to jobs, including de-icing or dispatching planes, collecting tickets for flights and handling baggage, Williams said.
"No matter what job you go to in the aviation industry, they love to see you've held a job in the aviation industry," he said.
The Catonsville location – about 8 miles from BWI as the crow flies or 15 minutes by car – also allows the school to attract faculty. The program has 38 adjunct faculty members teaching courses from aviation safety to airport management.
Jonathan Dean, BWI communication manager, said in a statement the CCBC training gives students an education that will help them succeed in jobs in the aviation industry.
Arjang Doorandish, a 2011 graduate of the CCBC program, is a pilot for United Express. Most of the major airlines require pilots to have at least a degree in aviation, he said.
It was a childhood dream for Doorandish, 42, to fly a plane. After graduating, he worked at flight schools in Maryland and Florida before moving to the regional airline, where he has been for about a year.
"This place helped me a lot to achieve my goals," he said.
Typically, graduates of the pilot program leave school with about 300 hours of flight experience. They become flight instructors to build their flight hours to about 1,200, which takes about two years, before they become commercial pilots.
About 65 percent of pilot students seek a degree in flying fixed-wing planes, with 25 percent training to fly helicopters, Williams said. The remainder are pursuing a degree in unmanned aircraft systems, a program that started in the fall of 2015 and is excepted to grow.
Williams credits part of the growth in the college's program to the air traffic control degree's approval by the Federal Aviation Administration under its 2008 Air Traffic Control Collegiate Training Initiative. The Catonsville program is one of 36 in the country and the only one in Maryland.
CCBC also is the only two-year college in the state that offers aviation technology as a statewide program, which means any resident of Maryland may enroll at the college at a reduced, in-state tuition rate. The program's graduation rate is about 80 percent.
More minorities have entered the ranks within the past 10 years, Williams said.
"We're always looking to get more women and minorities into the aviation industry," he said. "It's a FAA initiative and one of ours as well."
Training comes to life
At an airplane simulator, 34-year-old Sean Finnegan was working on a procedure that sets a pilot up for the final approach into an airport in a recent class.
The simulator is one of six at CCBC — three airplane simulators, a helicopter simulator and rooms dedicated to an air traffic control tower. The tower simulator allows students to train for managing takeoffs, landings and planes in the air.
Finnegan, a superintendent for an elevator company, got a pilot's license 10 years ago when he was in the Coast Guard. He wants to improve his skills and see if there any opportunities he can pursue in aviation.
He said the program will help fill a need for more pilots around the world.
A shortage in pilots has resulted in schedule reductions and potential loss of service at airports. Between 2013 and 2016, 52 U.S. airports lost passenger service, according to the Regional Airline Association, an airline industry advocacy group.
"There's going to be a lot of opportunity in the near future as baby boomers retire and pilots are retiring out of the industry," Finnegan said. "There needs to be better opportunities for young people to get into the aviation field and fill those gaps. It's only going to grow."
Thaddeus Halstead, a 24-year-old from Bel Air, is a simulator instructor who is watching Finnegan. He recently completed the CCBC aviation program and will graduate in the spring. He also works as a flight instructor at the Harford County Airport and hopes to become a pilot for an airline.
He said he'll start applying for jobs in about a year, when he has more flight hours logged.
"I love to fly, so I'd love to do it all day, every day, and make good money doing it," he said.
The average annual wage for pilots was $136,400, according to federal statistics.
Median pay for air traffic controllers, as of May 2015, is $122,950 per year, and flight attendants earn $44,860 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
When Williams joined the CCBC program, he saw growth potential. In the years ahead, he wants to see the school expand its unmanned aircraft systems program and provide more in aircraft maintenance.
"We can definitely build on this program," he said.