Business & Economy

Nonprofit group plans aviation apprenticeship program in Franklin County

Beth White, left, wants start an avionics apprenticeship program at the Franklin County State Airport in Highgate. Ian Bradette, right, is a 14-year-old from Fairfield who wants to learn how to be an airplane mechanic. They are seen at White's hanger at the airport on Friday, July 29. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

A nonprofit organization based at the Franklin County State Airport is developing what its founder calls a first-of-its kind apprenticeship program aimed at teaching young people how to repair and maintain both conventional and, notably, electric aircraft.

Habitat for Aviation also plans to build a new training facility to house the program, founder Beth White said. The hours apprentices work could count toward future professional certification, she said, such as an airframe and powerplant license.

“There’s no program that I know of that’s training youth to become the next generation of aviation mechanics for electric aircraft,” said White, an educator who lives in Milton. 

The Franklin County State Airport is the busiest general aviation airport in the state, with between 15 and 20 private planes operating there on a typical day. It sits about 5 miles south of the U.S.-Canada border in the town of Highgate.

In May, White and her family purchased a warehouse across the street from the airport’s operations building, which she said had been vacant for several years. They’ve since begun the work, with help from volunteers, to renovate and repurpose the structure. 

Plans are to turn the 9,600-square-foot warehouse into an airplane hangar, with space set aside for working on electric motors and other plane components as well as amenities, including a kitchen and lockers that could support up to 30 people.

And since the structure is located outside the airport’s gate, the project will require construction of a new taxi lane to get planes between the hangar and the runway. 

The project is set to hook into new municipal water and sewer lines at the airport, a project Highgate voters greenlit last fall with approval of a $500,000 bond. In all, the water and sewer project is expected to cost $3.5 million, per town estimates.

The lines will be extended up from where they end currently, at nearby Missisquoi Valley Union High School. Work is expected to be completed next fall, according to White. 

White said Habitat for Aviation’s facility is expected to be completed in about two years. She pointed to state workforce development grants and private foundations as two potential sources of funding, though noted the project is still in its early stages. 

Plans are for every apprentice to start out as part of a program White manages called the Harbor Freight Fellows Initiative, which gives high school-age people a $1,000 scholarship to work in a trade for 120 hours with a mentor, who’s also compensated. 

Ian Bradette is a 14-year-old from Fairfield who wants to be an airplane mechanic. He wants to enroll in an avionics apprenticeship program that Beth White hopes to establish at the Franklin County State Airport in Highgate. Seen on Friday, July 29. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The program also has an option for younger people. 

White said those 120 hours could serve as a tryout period, and if people like the work at Habitat for Aviation, they’d ideally be able to continue on after the fellowship ended with financial support from “a cost-share partner,” such as a company in the aviation industry.

Habitat for Aviation is already working with Beta Technologies, the South Burlington-based electric aircraft manufacturer, according to George Coy, who is the Franklin County State Airport’s former operator and father of its current operator, Clifford Coy. 

Beta engineers are helping redesign the warehouse to better accommodate planes, he said. And he said the company’s stated goal is to be able to train future technicians there.  

Beta spokesperson Jake Goldman did not comment by Friday night.

White said one reason she wanted to develop Habitat for Aviation is that there’s growing demand for aircraft technicians and other related jobs today. 

She pointed to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that employment for people who repair and maintain aircraft  is projected to grow 11% between 2020 and 2030, which is higher than the average for all occupations.

And White said the Franklin County State Airport already has a strong culture of young people involved in general aviation — many of whom spend time hanging out at Coy’s hangar. White also owns a hangar there, and said she’s the only woman who does.

She said she has been a pilot for five years. 

Beth White, right, wants start an avionics apprenticeship program at the Franklin County State Airport in Highgate. Ian Bradette, left, is a 14-year-old from Fairfield who wants to learn how to be an airplane mechanic. They are seen at White's hanger at the airport on Friday, July 29. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The state airport hosts the largest and most active chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association — an international aviation enthusiasts’ organization  — in Vermont, Coy said. The chapter has more than 100 members and hosts regular programs for young people. 

Among them is 14-year-old Ian Bradette from Fairfield, who also is Habitat for Aviation’s intern and part of the Harbor Freight Fellows Initiative. Bradette said he wants to work in aviation, and noted his family moved from Florida to Franklin County specifically so he could join the local Experimental Aircraft Association chapter in Highgate. 

Bradette spoke in a video interview with posters of airplanes hung up behind him. 

“It doesn’t look like too much from the outside, but on the inside, there’s a lot going on,” he said of the state airport in Highgate. “It’s really a great place to be.”

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Shaun Robinson

About Shaun

Shaun Robinson is a Report for America corps member with a special focus on issues of importance to Franklin and Grand Isle counties. He is a journalism graduate of Boston University, with a minor in political science. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Patriot Ledger of Quincy and the Cape Cod Times.

Email: [email protected]

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