Long-delayed Chattahoochee Tech aviation academy finally breaks ground

School to boost Georgia’s aerospace workforce amid labor crunch

After years of budget challenges and logistical headaches, Chattahoochee Technical College on Friday held a ceremonial groundbreaking for a new aviation maintenance academy in Paulding County that officials hope will help ease a shortage of skilled mechanics for Georgia’s aerospace industry.

The academy, which is slated to begin classes in 2024, will train aircraft maintenance and service technicians who are in short supply as thousands of older workers are retiring. Such skilled workers in Georgia can make an average of about $74,000 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Georgia’s aerospace industry employs more than 200,000 people, according to the state Department of Economic Development, and includes Delta Air Lines, private jet maker Gulfstream Aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin. Plans for the Chattahoochee Tech complex date to 2018 and were announced by then-Gov. Nathan Deal, but the proposal suffered numerous setbacks.

At the time, efforts to commercialize the Paulding airport and attract airline flights had foundered amid legal challenges by residents. The conflict led to political upheaval on the county board of commissioners, as well as years of lawsuits.

The aircraft maintenance school was seen as an alternative development for the airport.

But $35 million in state funding planned for the aviation academy in the state budget for 2019 was derailed by a need for emergency relief funding after Hurricane Michael devastated southwest Georgia.

Legislators ultimately nailed down funding for the project. But the original site selected for the academy next to the airport terminal was deemed by the Federal Aviation Administration as necessary for other future airport development.

Officials chose an alternative site adjacent to the Paulding airfield, and went through an environmental assessment process for approval. A range of logistical issues for the rural location also had to be worked out, including sewer, fiber, electric and water service, said state Rep. Martin Momtahan, R-Dallas.

State Sen. Jason Anavitarte, R-Dallas, said Friday’s groundbreaking showed Paulding has come a long way since the contentious fight over the airport’s future.

He called it an example of “turning a negative into a positive.”

Officials say they plan to complete the three-story building and hangar by fall of 2023, seek FAA approvals for the training and begin offering classes in 2024. The academy will train about 24 students at a time in a two-year program. The college plans to offer training for an airframe and powerplant certificate as well as specialties such as avionics.

“Graduates of this academy will have many options,” said Ron Newcomb, president of Chattahoochee Tech, which has eight campuses across north metro Atlanta and North Georgia, including in Paulding.

Labor shortages and staffing issues have driven mass flight cancellations this year as airlines rush to staff up again after cutbacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. But airlines and other aviation companies such as Savannah-based Gulfstream have also faced a shortage of skilled aircraft mechanics that has been brewing for years.

When the Chattahoochee Tech aviation academy at Paulding was first envisioned, metro Atlanta faced a particular paucity because the Atlanta Technical College’s aircraft maintenance program lost its FAA certification. It has since regained the FAA imprimatur, and is again one of several aircraft maintenance technical school programs in Georgia.