Aviation industry faces the same staffing headwinds as other important sectors, but Aviation Museum of Kentucky programs are pushing information about careers to thousands of potential pilots, mechanics, terminal operators, attendants, airline staff and more.
It attracts students to its specially designed camps and hosts them on field trips to learn about the many facets of aviation, which range far and wide from the cockpit.
AMK sits on the edge of Blue Grass Airport in Lexington. Its multiroom hangar and offices are packed with historic planes, engines, flight simulators and exhibits about Kentuckians who have made significant contributions to aviation. Several times a year historic military planes such as the B-29 Superfortress visit for public tours and rides.
Unique aircraft, devices, machines and technology at AMK present a hands-on opportunity to elevate interest in students while also informing them about flight. Even 120 years after the Wright brothers’ first liftoff, the field of aviation continues to excite the imagination of people young and old.
A continued fascination with flight
There is an $8 million grant request in the upcoming state budget to go toward the process of reconfiguring Blue Grass Airport in Lexington for growth, which will relocate AMK to another area of the property so commercial, private and general aviation activities can grow into the current space.
Aviation is woven deeply into the modern economy in Kentucky, whose logistics sector includes major global air freight hubs for Amazon, UPS and DHL. There are currently an estimated 19,000 direct jobs in Kentucky’s aviation sector, with more and more people becoming interested in the field. In addition, Kentucky exports over $14.6 billion in aerospace products, making aerospace the commonwealth’s top export category.
This growth is magnified by the popularity of aviation in media and popular culture, with movies such as “Top Gun: Maverick” leading to greater public interest and drawing more people to AMK. Orville and Wilbur Wright—who are credited with inventing, building, and flying the world’s first successful motor-operated airplane—were from Dayton, Ohio, and the aviation/aerospace activity that has bloomed in the surrounding region over the past century is why the area is now a major manufacturer of parts and systems such as jet engine turbine blades and landing gear brakes.
Thousands more jobs play roles in enabling every pilot to take off and land at Kentucky airports. This includes those who interact with airports, from supplying jet fuel to designing terminals, providing maintenance services, controlling access systems to the property, and hundreds of other functions that are part of the complex systems that make up a modern airport.
Taking on a unique role
AMK is the only full-sized aviation museum in the state, making it a prime destination for people from all over who are interested in aviation. (The other notable aviation museum in Kentucky is Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green, though its selection of exhibits is smaller in size and scope than AMK.) Its location at Blue Grass Airport—right off the tarmac and across the street from Keeneland Racecourse and its tens of thousands of visitors—is a major benefit for the museum.
The museum houses a Hall of Fame program for significant aviators and organizations from Kentucky. Exhibits depict contributions by Kentuckians to aviation, such as development of the first landing gear and bringing GPS systems into existence.
Many of the aircraft that stop at AMK for the community to see are only planned a couple of weeks in advance, as the pilots know they will be in the area and choose to come to Lexington. According to Chairman Jim McCormick, pilots choose to stop in Lexington because it is known in the industry that the staff at the Blue Grass Airport and the Aviation Museum of Kentucky treat pilots exceptionally well. This allows the museum to bring in more aircraft for events, resulting in more visitors to the museum.
Cultivating a passion for aviation
AMK’s summer camps are focused on education but also touch on the youth development and recreation category. School field trips include private tours that are tailored to the current curriculum the students are learning. Such trips can vary from a regular group tour to a pizza party in the middle of the museum surrounded by the exhibits. The summer program also utilizes the museum to host a day seminar to fully immerse youth in the aviation industry.
For many, camp programs have proven to be a pathway to a career in aviation.
“Aviation camp was always my favorite part of the summer,” said Matt Yonts, an airport operations specialist with Louisville Regional Airport Authority. “I went each year at BWG (Bowling Green-Warren County Regional) airport. I lived right by the airport and wanted to learn more about the planes that I saw flying overhead every day. My very first day I was on the list to go up in the C-172. I’ll never forget the moment we put full throttle in, pulled away from the runway, and I saw the ground slowly shrinking away out the window.
“At that moment I’d caught the flying bug and knew I would be involved in aviation for the rest of my life. Since then, I’ve received my private pilot license and instrument rating, graduated from Eastern Kentucky University with a degree in aviation, and worked at multiple airports across the country. What I gained at aviation camp was a passion for anything and everything aviation related.”
Professional pilot Jake Bell had a similar experience.
“I got my start in aviation by participating in all three levels of the aviation camp at LEX (Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport) when I was a kid. I worked various flying jobs through and immediately after college, then flew for regional carrier ExpressJet (United Express) for 8½ years. I’m currently a pilot for Delta Air Lines and serve on the DVK (Danville, Ky.) airport board. I own an airplane (an RV-4) that I keep at DVK and fly a number of other airplanes based there. The camp is a fantastic program and I’m glad to see it thriving.”