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Training Future Pilots

Unusual Southeastern University program lays foundation for students who want to fly.

Although only a sophomore at Southeastern University (SEU), Hannah L. Boyd, 20, will be working soon at Kingsky Flight Academy, after passing her final certified flight instructor’s exam.

A Christian high school graduate who has long envisioned becoming a pilot, Boyd sought career training in a spiritual environment. She’s glad she chose SEU, which began offering two- and four-year aviation degrees during the spring semester of 2019.

“All the instructors are willing to help if I have any questions,” Boyd says. “They want us to thrive, and they do their best to help us reach our goals. She already has 280 flight hours, not including the ground lessons and studying she’s completed.

SEU is one of a half-dozen Christian colleges and universities offering aviation programs. A leading feature of the program at the Lakeland, Florida, school is that students can start training while completing their degree online. This allows them to log numerous hours prior to graduation, which makes them more attractive job candidates.

Director Kenneth E. Stephens, 57, says aviation is a growing field because of pending pilot retirements. Plane manufacturer Boeing projects a worldwide shortage of nearly 800,000 pilots over the next 15 years because of retirements and competition sparked by growth of the airline industry in Asia.

“It seems like every day we’re hearing from students interested in flying,” says the retired U.S. Army noncommissioned officer. “Even with the slowdowns lately because of COVID-19, this is a prime time for training because once things are under control, people will start flying again.”

Southeastern offers a bachelor’s degree in aviation management with a professional pilot track, a second in business and professional leadership with a professional pilot track, and an associate of applied sciences degree with a professional pilot track. Stephens says small class sizes have allowed flight classes on campus and at Lakeland-Linder International Airport to observe safety protocols and continue without interruption during the pandemic.

Pilots from Kingsky and other backgrounds spend a lot of individual time with students, who also take theology and Bible courses as part of their studies, the director says.

Many undergraduates are interested in going into commercial aviation, he says, while others envision a future in the military; some talk about using their pilot skills for mission work.

Whatever a student’s interest, the unusual aspect is that SEU is offering the program in a Christian atmosphere, according to Stephens, an associate pastor in nearby Gordonville.

“Here students get the spiritual piece that they won’t get in a secular university,” he says. “We bring a spiritual and biblical foundation to their education.”

Also an SEU instructor in diversity and multiculturalism since 2006, Stephens took over as director of the aviation program last fall. He says it gives him the opportunity to use the skills he developed in the Army’s aviation safety program. He worked first as a mechanic and later became a supervisor and production control manager overseeing the flight program.

His duties at Fort Bliss Army Base in Texas included serving as part of a flight systems management crew, with the unit flying “threat aircraft” that looked like planes U.S. pilots would encounter in action.

“During the first Gulf War, the Army realized we were training our own aircraft against our own people and as a result took a lot of ‘friendly fire,’” says Stephens, who retired from the military in 2003 after a 20-year career.

After his military retirement, Stephens kept working in El Paso as a civilian aviation safety officer at Fort Bliss. He also continued his educational studies; among his five degrees are a master’s in pastoral counseling and a doctorate in helping professions (a cross between counseling and social work).

In 2005, he sensed the Lord leading him to move back to his home area, never dreaming of one day using his flight knowledge to prepare future pilots. Stephens loves instilling knowledge in the young people entrusted to SEU by their parents.

“Aviation is a dangerous field,” Stephens says. “You only get one time to mess up.”

Kenneth C. Walker

Kenneth C. Walker is a freelance writer, co-author, and book editor from Huntington, West Virginia. He has more than 4,500 article bylines and has written, edited, or contributed to more than 90 books.