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Blankenship ready to spread her wings
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Dr. Chaminda Prelis, chair of the MTSU Aerospace Department, and WCHS graduate Emilie Blankenship were co-speakers Thursday in discussing the need for more employees in the airline industry. - photo by Bill Zechman

In just a few years you may settle into your seat on an airliner, buckle up and then hear a familiar voice on the intercom.

The pilot welcoming you to the flight could be McMinnville native Emilie Blankenship, a Warren County High School graduate and more recently an alumna of Middle Tennessee State University’s aerospace program.

“I got to aviation in a roundabout way,” Blankenship told The Rotary Club of McMinnville Thursday as she was co-speaker with Dr. Chaminda Prelis, chair of the MTSU Aerospace Department.

An injury incurred on the rugby field caused her to re-think her earlier plans to go into medicine.   She took a Discovery Flight — often the first time a young person gets to sit in the cockpit and put hands on the controls — and she was hooked.   

“I fell in love with flying … now I love my job as a flight instructor,” she said.

Established at the Murfreesboro university in 1942, MTSU Aerospace Department has grown to capture national and international attention as a multi-disciplinary program for training not only pilots but most of the other skilled, knowledge-based occupations in commercial aviation. In fact, the nearby school ranks in the top five nationally in terms of student enrollment and production of job-ready graduates, Prelis told the Rotarians.

The program boasts 23 full-time faculty, 20 support personnel and some 100 certified flight instructors. The program has outgrown its historic ground operations at the municipal airport in Murfreesboro and is in the process of relocating to the existing airport at Shelbyville.   McMinnville had been among the initial candidates for the MTSU expansion but the proximity to Murfreesboro turned the decision in favor of the Bedford County location.

Despite its ramped-up academic and practical capabilities, MTSU struggles to keep up with demand for qualified pilots, air traffic controllers, aircraft maintenance supervisors and air transport managers, Prelis said.   

The surge in air travel following the COVID pandemic, along with the government-mandated retirement age of 65 for pilots, is driving the demand into “exponential growth,” the MTSU professor observed. Those factors, among others, figured in the extraordinary number of airline flight cancellations, delays and reduced travel options over the past couple of years. 

Some 80,000 pilots are scheduled to retire over the next 20 years. Forecasts suggest there will be 14,500 pilot openings each year in the next few decades, but in the recent past the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued an average of only 6,500 flight certificates per year, Prelis stated. The supply-demand pressures have pushed up first-year salaries for pilots from about $45,000 a decade ago to $100,000 currently.  

Blankenship said she felt at home at McMinnville Noon Rotary as she was a member of a very active Interact Club while a student at Warren County High School. She was also in the Rotary Youth Leadership Academy, a top-level program for training young people for future leadership roles.

Prelis and Blankenship are guests on the weekly FOCUS interview program this week on McMinnville Public Radio 91.3-WCPI. The half-hour conversation will be broadcast Tuesday at 5 p.m. with repeats Wednesday at 5 a.m., Thursday at 1 p.m., and Friday at 1 a.m.