Why West Virginia is the aviation state

Tyler Lucas is not your typical pilot. You’ll often find the Fairmont State University alum flying around the East Coast in a Lear Jet. Sometimes, he has corporate clients on board. Other times, he has organs – hearts, kidneys, lungs, livers – nestled safely on dry ice inside a Coleman brand cooler. That’s because he’s rushing the much-needed organs to help save the lives of sick patients at nearby hospitals.

“It’s just like flying any other passenger,” says the humble 25-year-old who still lives in Fairmont. “The most rewarding part of my current job is just knowing that people are receiving these organs that they waited on lists for. I have a hand in making sure that people are getting the healthcare they need, especially when there's something as important as internal organs.”

Lucas, a native West Virginian, always knew he wanted to be a pilot. He enrolled in Fairmont State’s Aviation Technology Program at just the right time, as there is a shortage of pilots in America. “The numbers are staggering,” says Jason Vosburgh, an assistant professor of Aviation Technology at Fairmont and chair of the department. “The last number I heard was around 800,000 – so there is an opportunity to fill this need.”

It’s a recent Sunday afternoon and Vosburgh is giving a tour of the school’s hangar near the North Central West Virginia Airport. The 48-year-old looks the part of a pilot straight out of central casting: a bomber jacket over a white shirt and striped tie, perfectly coiffed hair. He climbs into a twin-engine Piper Aztec, one of seven planes owned by the university, each one emblazoned with the Fairmont State University logo.

After around 10 hours of flight time, students are already getting the keys to fly these planes by themselves. “It’s fantastic seeing the families come from all the counties in West Virginia,” Vosburgh says. “You see Mom and Dad, their eyes sparkle when they know that their son or daughter are going to be flying a $400,000 airplane in the next few weeks. You have your dream and we can create the reality for that dream. We live vicariously through our students.”

Vosburgh moved from California six years ago because he saw something special in this part of Appalachia. “West Virginia is the aviation state,” he says matter-of-factly, noting that Chuck Yeager, a West Virginian, was the first pilot to break the sound barrier. “The personality of the people in West Virginia is self-determinative, confident, stand on your own two feet, self-sufficient. That is aviation culture. And the people here are some of the greatest pilots."

His goal is to help shepherd the department to the next level. “With aviation, you never arrive,” explains Vosburgh. “There’s always something more to learn. There’s another airplane, there’s another airport, there’s another complexity. There’s another level.”

For alumni like Lucas, the degree is their ticket to freedom. A career in aviation means you can be based anywhere. “It’s easy to commute when you’re going Mach .78,” Vosburgh says of the nearly 600 miles per hour speed. “You can fly anywhere in the country and you can live here in West Virginia. It’s like telecommuting, but we go really fast.” The aviation industry is desperate for pilots and, straight out of college, students can secure jobs earning upwards of $100,000 on the ground (airport management) or in the air (commercial pilot).

Asked what he would tell potential students considering a degree in aviation, Lucas is quick with a reply. “Do it and don’t look back because it’s the greatest career on the face of the planet,” he says. “I cannot stress how awesome this job is.”