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Greenville Business Magazine

South Carolina Aerospace Education Opportunities on the Rise

Nov 03, 2022 11:51AM ● By Kevin Dietrich

South Carolina’s growing aerospace prowess is limited to neither the construction of jets nor the plethora of suppliers producing materials, components, and parts for high-end aircraft built in the state.

Aerospace training in the state has blossomed in recent years, and officials believe that South Carolina is on its way to becoming a destination for individuals pursuing aeronautical engineering degrees and other aviation-related education.

The state is home to the McNair Center for Aerospace Research and Innovation at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, and the South Carolina Aeronautical Training Center, which operates at Trident Technical College’s North Charleston campus. 

In addition, Clemson University has a Department of Aerospace Studies, Greenville Technical College has an aircraft maintenance technology program, and Charleston Southern University added an aeronautics program earlier this year.

There are also several high schools in the state providing industry knowledge and training through so-called “aviation high schools.” The schools, introduced in the state in 2017 and affiliated with existing secondary institutions, are designed to appeal to students interested in aerospace.

A major force behind aviation high schools is Steve Townes, CEO and founder of Ranger Aerospace and president and CEO of ACL Airshop, both of Greenville. Townes is also a board member of SC Aerospace, an industry cluster that receives support from the South Carolina Department of Commerce and the S.C. Council on Competitiveness.

The schools give young people who cannot afford a college degree a chance at good-paying positions at aerospace, aviation, and aero-maintenance support companies around the state, according to ACL Airshop officials.

There are also several high schools in the state providing access to aerospace engineering courses. In all, South Carolina is home to more than 30 aero-specific education and workforce training programs, according to the S.C. Department of Commerce.

These programs serve not only Boeing, which assembles all its 787 Dreamliners in the Lowcountry, and Lockheed-Martin, which produces F-16 Fighting Falcons in Greenville, but many of the smaller aerospace companies located in South Carolina.

The McNair Center, named for South Carolina native and Challenger astronaut Ronald McNair, seeks to expand the state’s knowledge-based economy and support industry through aerospace education, research leadership, and industry advancement.

The McNair Center, part of USC’s Department of Engineering and Computing, was founded in 2011 and officially opened in 2015. It offers undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees in aerospace engineering. Professionals can also earn certification in areas such as airframe structural design and introduction to composites.

The idea for Trident Tech’s S.C. Aeronautical Training Center came about in 2009, when Boeing announced plans to operate in South Carolina. The $80 million center formally opened in 2019. 

The S.C. Aeronautical Training Center has more than 125 students and features a variety of programs, including aircraft assembly technology, avionics maintenance technology and mechatronics, which is technology that combines electronics and mechanical engineering.

The McNair Center is expected to have approximately 350 students once it reaches capacity, according to Hossein Haj-Hariri, dean of the College of Engineering and Computing at the University of South Carolina.

The McNair Center’s focus includes design and assembly of composite materials, energy conversion and propulsion, and predictive maintenance. The center is also involved in the development of drones and other unmanned vehicles.

“What we’re doing isn’t all theoretical. A lot of schools focus on the theoretical rather than trying to put what they’re developing into practice,” Haj-Hariri said. “We know how to work with businesses and how to make theories into reality.” 

With Boeing dominating the state’s aerospace sector, many students will either end up working for the global manufacturing giant or a company that supports it.

“Boeing recruits heavily from our classes,” said Robert Elliott, Trident Tech’s dean of manufacturing and maintenance. “They can’t get enough of our students. They want every student we can train.”