Aviation Innovation and Maintenance Center of Excellence Set to Reach New Heights in Salina

Serving as a catalyst for future aviation growth in Salina and throughout Kansas, the Aviation Innovation and Maintenance (AIM) Center of Excellence has taken the first step to address the shortage of skilled workers hindering the growth and competitiveness of the aviation maintenance industry in Kansas.

The AIM Center of Excellence apprenticeship training program will increase training and development opportunities for Kansas and is being launched with funds for equipment, management, youth training services, course development, marketing, and construction on an established hangar (H626) on the Salina Regional Airport (SLN).

“The significance of this program is to provide both existing aviation industries and other related companies with a skilled workforce before they enter the company’s doors,” said Mitch Robinson, Executive Director for the Salina Community Economic Development Organization. “This advantage is a huge plus for the community and for those companies who take part in the program.” By providing real-world hands-on training using aircraft from 1 Vision Aviation, this program will provide the student with a skill set that will provide them with a ready to start package of knowledge.  

Mandy Merritt, Director of Quality Assurance for 1 Vision Aviation says the shortage of aircraft maintenance personnel is being felt all over the country. “With the goals that the AIM program has set in providing a crucial first step in exposing people to the industry, we will add high-paying jobs in Salina and potentially, throughout the state. Every apprentice that the AIM Center places in the aircraft maintenance industry has the opportunity to take their career in countless directions,” said Merritt. “This is a very exciting initiative that has the potential to alleviate a deficit in the aviation workforce, improve the community, and showcase the Salina Airport Authority the entity working to advance all of the aviation companies operating in Salina.”

Along with 1 Vision Aviation, other AIM partners include the Salina Airport Authority, Dreiling Aviation Services, Salina Area Chamber of Commerce, Salina Tech, General Atomics – ASI, Salina EDO, Midwest ATC Services, Kansas Workforce, KS Governor’s Military Council, USD 305, and K-State Salina.  

Kirsten Zoller, Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives for K-State Salina said the industry needs innovative solutions to solving the aviation workforce crisis. “The ability to upskill individuals in a condensed, hands-on approach is impactful.” The AIM program exposes learners to a variety of aviation maintenance skills and career opportunities. Learners are equipped to start work right away or further their education. “This will help our regional and national industry partners to have a skilled workforce ready to take on the challenges of the aerospace industry,” said Zoller.

The Salina Airport Authority’s hope is that the AIM Center will enhance the reputation and recognition of the airport as a hub for aviation innovation and excellence, as well as foster collaboration and networking among industry partners. The Airport Authority’s involvement in the AIM Center will support the development and growth of the Salina Regional Airport and its tenants, as well as create new jobs and opportunities for local residents and businesses.

The objectives of AIM are to address the shortage of skilled aviation maintenance workers, including airframe and powerplant mechanic, sheet metal specialist, electronics and avionics technician, composites, and aircraft paint; to attract a diversify workforce, with 75 professionals trained each year and offer microcredentials for credit & certification. Microcredentials are condensed units of learning that assess skills and competencies.

As a collaborating partner with AIM, Kansas State University Salina Aerospace and Technology Campus (K-State Salina) is providing curriculum development and course instruction, and is partnering with AIM to help deliver practical, hands-on education – “something our campus has done for decades in the aerospace and technology fields,” said Zoller. Learners completing the program will additionally receive a K-State microcredential. “Learners will be able to share this K-State microcredential with potential future employers and education institutions,” said Zoller. K-State Salina will also provide AIM learners with information about the educational opportunities that they can receive from K-State Salina, including associates, bachelor’s and graduate degrees.

With new demands and skills needed with the introduction of Advanced Air Mobility and electric aircraft, AIM will specially train mechanics for new use cases using advanced technology. Students in this program have an accelerated path to becoming an FAA certified mechanic and will be uniquely prepared with the skills needed to maintain new generations of aircraft, both crewed and uncrewed.

The Airport Authority believes that in the long term the AIM Center will increase the availability and accessibility of skilled training and education for current and future aviation professionals, as well as promote diversity and inclusion in the workforce.  It will contribute to the economic development and growth of aviation in the state, region, and the nation, as well as support the national security and defense interests.  By participating in the AIM Center initiative, the Salina Airport Authority and its partners will be able to leverage their strengths and resources to address some of the challenges and opportunities facing the aviation industry in the 21st century.

“AIM is yet another example of what makes Salina and the State of Kansas an exciting place to live, learn, and work,” said Curtis L. Stevens, Ed.D., Director of Secondary Programs for USD 305, Salina Public Schools. “This program will help train a workforce that is needed to fill existing positions in the aviation maintenance field. AIM will also help support efforts to attract other employment opportunities for the people of Salina and Kansas.”

The AIM Center of Excellence will provide an additional 150 skilled aviation technicians through the life of the grant, to meet the growth demand of 1 Vision Aviation, as well as other aviation businesses located on the Salina airport and the State of Kansas. This program seeks a diverse student population with outreach and pathways for high school students, college students, transitioning workers, and military veterans. Through partnership with Kansas State University’s outreach to 105 Kansas counties and Salina Chamber’s relationships with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Salina and St. Francis Ministries, this program will have active outreach to minority and disadvantaged students for exploring potential aviation career paths. Additionally, outreach efforts will build on the relationships K-State Salina and the Salina Chamber have established by actively connecting with Fort Riley through the Transition Assistance Program (TAP).

Tucky Allen, Business Services Director/Rapid Response Coordinator, Kansas Workforce One, said their role is to bring workforce to the table and to market accordingly in their workforce centers. “We will work with employers to set up Registered Apprenticeships that are in-line with AIM.” Once RAs are established, they will work with their Workforce Centers and other partners to attract jobseekers to the RAs. They will also promote in the High Schools via their Work-Based Learning Program. “AIM will add another pathway to excellent, in-demand careers for Adults and Youth in the Region,” said Allen. “This is huge for Salina and Kansas for economic development and workforce development and increased activity in Aerospace and Aviation training.”

From what Robinson and the Salina Community Economic Development Organization has determined this is a one-of-a-kind program in the U.S. that is providing early training and education to those interested in working in the aviation field. “By having this school in our community, state and in the industry, it will have a unique ability to help provide basic training in the identified four areas of interest along with general overviews of the aviation industry,” said Robinson. “This course will help our existing MRO 1 Vision Aviation and other companies in our area who are seeking employees who have graduated with this certification. This six-week program will give the graduate a leg up on others who are seeking employment within the aviation industry. By having this unique program, it allows Salina to have an advantage over other Kansas communities as well as other U.S. cities.”

“Plus, AIM exposes learners to aviation maintenance in an accessible and fun way,” added Zoller. “Learners will have the opportunity to learn more about K-State Salina and we hope they will consider enrolling with us in other training programs or a K-State Salina degree. Ultimately, AIM helps us meet our mission statement of developing global leaders and fostering innovation and talent development in aerospace, technology, and specific needs of the region.”

“Any advantage that we can use in this competitive environment will be a big plus for our community as we compete against other communities here in Kansas or in the Midwest or other parts of the United States,” noted Robinson. “The aviation industry has spread out across the United States and the world with companies expanding to new regions and states as companies seek access to new markets for labor force and access to new customer bases. The impact will help make Salina a much more competitive location.”

Ultimately, AIM hopes to break new barriers and reach new heights by elevating student dreams and unlocking their future. “I believe that the Salina Region will see significant interest from Aerospace and Aviation sector employers looking to expand or relocate to Kansas,” said Allen. “I believe that the training center will give jobseekers the opportunity to Apprentice in a skilled-trade area with high wages and job security. The days of Hawker-Beechcraft could soon be returning to Salina and the Region.”

“I do think that this initiative will make Kansas – and particularly Salina, KS – the gold standard in recruitment and training for the aviation maintenance industry,” said Renee Duxler, President & CEO of the Salina Area Chamber of Commerce.

Stevens agrees, “Long term, AIM will serve as a major economic catalyst to our community’s future success. AIM’s establishment is another example of how Salina continues to be a community on the move.”

Dreiling Aviation Services, in close collaboration with the AIM Center of Excellence, has all along, been at the heart of assembling and guiding the efforts of this exceptional team. “Together,” said Lindsey Dreiling, co-owner, and CEO of Dreiling Aviation Services of Salina, “we’re committed to the future of aviation education and workforce readiness in Kansas and beyond.”

The AIM Center of Excellence is a place where everyone can aim for the stars, so hold onto your seat because careers are about to take flight – Aviation, Innovation, and Maintenance – AIM Center of Excellence. Come join the workforce that is innovating the future today.