Cleared for Takeoff

David Pittenger, Bryan Branham, Bill Noe, Jerome GilbertThe Bill Noe Flight School breaks ground on what promises to be a boon to both the university and the economy of southern West Virginia.


A lot has changed since Marshall announced in 2019 that it would be founding a Division of Aviation, with plans to admit its first students in fall of 2021. Although the unprecedented challenges of the coronavirus pandemic could understandably have pulled attention and resources away from the development of such an ambitious new project, progress continues on schedule. Marshall is establishing itself as an educational leader in a field that provides tremendous employment opportunities and has the potential to boost the Tri-State’s economy by bringing aerospace businesses seeking an educated, local workforce to the region.

The Division of Aviation is the result of partnerships among the university, Tri-State and Yeager airports, and Mountwest Community and Technical College. The Bill Noe Flight School, which will be housed at Marshall’s South Charleston campus and Yeager Airport, will offer a four-year degree for commercial pilots. A two-year aircraft maintenance technician program, offered in conjunction with Mountwest Community and Technical College in Huntington, will be located at Tri-State Airport. This joint degree will be the first in the state — the Higher Education Learning Commission changed their policies to allow the collaboration between state institutions to better serve students’ needs.

Groundbreaking for the hangar and a 10,000-square-foot academic building at Yeager Airport took place Aug. 13, with construction scheduled to be completed by Aug. 1, 2021. Those on hand for the landmark event included Gov. Jim Justice; President Jerome Gilbert; Yeager Airport Director Nick Keller; U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin; representatives of Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Congresswoman Carol Miller and Congressman Alex Mooney; and members of the Marshall University Board of Governors.

“The development of this program is truly an investment in our beautiful Mountain State,” said President Gilbert. “Aviation will pump a great deal of money into our economy, which will benefit us all. Truly, diversification of educational opportunities at Marshall, like aviation, pharmacy and biomechanical engineering, will draw students from across the country to our state.”

Marshall has hired Bryan Branham, a former Ohio University professor of aviation with decades of experience in military and civilian flight operations, to be their chief flight instructor. The curriculum for the new program has been approved by the university and the school has begun the process of receiving FAA approval of the program. Marshall has approved the purchase of three aircraft for the program, including two Cirrus SR20 airplanes and a single-engine used plane required for specialized training.

But Marshall leaders are not content to simply get the new program up and running on schedule; they seek to offer an education that sets the highest standard for quality.

“We don’t want a good flight school and a good maintenance program. We want outstanding programs,” says Dr. David Pittenger, dean of the graduate college. “When we decided to purchase training aircraft, we specifically chose the Cirrus SR20 because we believe it is the single best aircraft to use to train professional pilots. All the instruments on the plane are state of the art and will make the students familiar with commercial aircraft. We designed our air maintenance program to increase the likelihood that students will succeed in passing the test when they go for FAA certification. Partnerships with the two airports will provide outstanding service and facilities for both programs. We have a lot of pride in our aviation programs. When students step on campus next year, they will see that.”

Bill Noe, the Huntington native, Marshall alumnus and Board of Governors member for whom the flight school is named, provides Marshall a tremendous resource in achieving the standards of excellence they seek. Noe has worked in the aviation field for decades, starting as a flight instructor and eventually becoming the president and chief operating officer of Ohio-based NetJets. University leaders knew that his expertise and industry connections would be invaluable to the new program, so they sought his input from the earliest stages of planning. Noe agreed to serve as executive aviation specialist, volunteering his time for a minimum of five years as an adviser to the school of aviation. To recognize Noe for this support, the flight school was named in his honor. Noe is excited about the opportunity to help his alma mater provide the highest standard of aviation education in his hometown.

“The quality of instruction we are going to provide will be of the highest caliber,” says Noe. “We are going to ensure that our instructors come in with the right qualifications, background and experience, but also that we train them to provide the quality of instruction that we demand. And along with that comes the quality of our equipment. We did not buy the cheapest airplanes to train our students. The single-engine Cirrus is one of the more expensive ones, but it comes with a lot of technology and equipment that will enable our students to be able to be that much more prepared when they graduate. And we will have facilities that are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also offer state-of-the-art simulators, training devices and classroom technology.”

Airplane from frontAirplane interiorAirplane from sideOffering aviation degree programs allows Marshall to meet a great need in the workforce. A nationwide pilot shortage is anticipated to last for the next two to three decades. Graduates of the flight school will have opportunities for careers in the military or with corporate, commercial or regional airlines. Even with short-term downturns in commercial aviation because of decreased customer traffic during the pandemic, the military and business aviation still have a need for more pilots. In addition to the pilot shortage, there is also a tremendous shortage of aircraft maintenance technicians.

“This is an exciting time for Marshall as well as for the region,” says Noe. “The programs will draw students from all over the country. Once we overcome the virus, people will flock back to flying on the commercial carriers, and we will have a very severe shortage of pilots. This is the perfect time to come into the industry.”

The aviation school is projected to eventually attract 300 new students to Marshall.

“This is a win for everybody,” says Pittenger. “The flight school will attract students who might not otherwise come to Marshall. There are very few flight schools in this part of the country. Students have to go to Florida or Oklahoma to go to flight schools. Now we have one in our backyard. We are competitive in our tuition costs. We think the flight school will also have a secondary consequence in increasing Marshall’s name recognition, letting people know that we are a high-quality university where they can get a good value education.”

Aviation-related industries are growing worldwide. Studies of how to promote economic development in southern West Virginia indicate the aerospace industries, if persuaded to locate in the region, could potentially transform the economy.

“The industry follows education’s lead,” says Pittenger. “In a number of studies of how to promote economic development as the coal industry declines, one of the things that became clear is that the aerospace industry has much to contribute to this area. The problem is we don’t have people who are specifically trained to do aeronautics work, so having both the pilots and the aviation technicians who can service airplanes means that companies will be more likely to move here and do business.”

Pittenger says there has already been interest from local school systems in partnering with Marshall to incorporate aeronautical sciences into their curriculum. These partnerships would provide academic pathways to introduce local students to careers in aviation and show them how their hometown university can now enable them to realize that dream.

They would be following in the footsteps of Noe, who says being a pilot is a challenging and immensely rewarding career.

“It not only is the best job, it comes with the best office view in the world,” says Noe.


About the author: Molly McClennen is a Marshall University alumna and freelance writer living in Huntington, West Virginia.

Photos (from top):

  • Construction is underway for the Bill Noe Flight School at Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia. It will include an aircraft hangar and a 10,000-square-foot academic building. From left are Graduate College Dean David Pittenger, Yeager Airport Director Nick Keller, Chief Flight Instructor Bryan Branham, Board of Governors member Bill Noe and Marshall President Jerome Gilbert.
  • The development of this program is truly an investment in our beautiful Mountain State. Aviation will pump a great deal of money into our economy, which will benefit us all.” — President Jerome Gilbert. Artist’s renderings of the Cirrus airplanes that will comprise the university’s training fleet.