DADE CITY — Dustin Snodgrass has a photograph of himself as a child in the pilot's seat of a kid-size model airplane. Snodgrass, now 28, recently took a big step toward his goal of flying real aircraft with his first solo flight through a new professional pilot technology associate's degree program at Pasco-Hernando State College.
Snodgrass is not new to airplanes, just piloting them. He was in the Navy for 5 1/2 years as an aviation electronics technician. He spent three years of that time in Japan, staying an extra year in a Tokyo school studying international business, but, he admitted, mainly learning Japanese. He is fluent.
After that, he spent some time in Hawaii for more study, then came to Spring Hill to be closer to family. He said he was looking through the college's website and saw the aviation offering.
"I already have a few associate degrees," he said, but decided to add this one.
"I always wanted to be a pilot," he said.
Snodgrass was the first beginning flyer in the college's program to solo.
"It was exhilarating," he said.
Two more students, Keenan Pendergraft, 26, and James Kessner, 24, have also felt what it is like to be sky high and solely in control.
"It was amazing," Pendergraft said. "You kind of think to yourself, holy ----, I'm flying a plane myself!"
"It's one of those indescribable things," Kessner said.
This particular aviation program is only offered at a few colleges throughout the state, which mandated it.
PHSC's program is state-funded, said program director and professional pilot Mark Aragon, who spent 30 years in the Air Force and is now the instructor for the professional pilot technology and unmanned vehicle systems operation programs at PHSC.
The pilot program, Aragon said, "takes the student from zero flight time, and when they end the tour they are multi-engine professional pilots."
It takes two years.
The unmanned system program teaches students to operate vehicles on land, in the sea and in the air — robots, submarines and aircraft.
Michael Brunnschweiler is a licensed commercial pilot, who spent nine years in the Marine Corps. He is the coordinator and instructor for the other two parts of the aviation associate's degree program — aviation administration and aviation maintenance administration.
There are a lot of jobs at airports besides piloting aircraft. Brunnschweiler instructs students who might be interested in airport management, FFA government jobs and airline jobs, among others.
Besides classroom space, the program, which is on PHSC's Dade City campus, is equipped with flight simulators. One of them is even partially enclosed in a structure that is like being inside the nose of an airplane. These are Red Bird Flight Simulators with interchangeable parts to more closely simulate the various aircraft that students may encounter. They can be programmed to many particular airports, as well. They are very close to what it is like being in actual airplanes.
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Brandon Swanbom is another student in the professional pilot technology program. He acquired his private pilot license soon after he turned 17.
He has since earned his instrument rating, commercial pilot rating and multi-engine rating. He is in the Air Force Air National Guard and is a load master on a C-17 (a cargo and transport aircraft). He is 21.
Swanbom is an example of the value and versatility of the college's new programs. He is working on his bachelor's degree in supervision and management, but is also in the pilot program. He enrolled, he said, for the academic value, to help fill in knowledge that may be useful to him as he continues his career. He is not yet licensed as an airline transport pilot. He hopes to eventually sit up front in a C-17 or be an airline pilot.
The other students have similar career goals.
Kessner said he would like to work with a commercial airline or perhaps join the Air Force. Pendergraft wants to be a pilot, and Snodgrass said, "I'd like to do some kind of emergency response and search and disaster relief, and then own a flight tour company."