SHELBYVILLE, Tenn. — With MTSU Aerospace-branded planes flanking the stage on which he would speak, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee joined Middle Tennessee State University President Sidney A. McPhee, other state, local and university officials on Thursday, Sept. 21, in ushering in a new era for the university’s growing Aerospace Department.
With several hundred people — including MTSU students, staff and Diamond and Piper aircraft — attending the special event at Shelbyville Municipal Airport, remarks by Lee and McPhee signaled a new flight plan for one of the top aviation programs in the nation. MTSU True Blue TV will rebroadcast the livestreamed event.
“What an important day for the university, Tennessee and Shelbyville and Bedford County,” said Lee. “We’ve been advocating for this, and MTSU and Shelbyville have created an environment for this to work.
“… This is money well spent. … This is one of the leading aviation programs in the nation and we need to invest in it. Southwest (Airlines) put its crew base in Nashville and that is a very big deal. … I’m proud of our state and it’s because of you. That’s why Tennessee is the envy of other states. … That’s why what’s happening in Bedford County is so important and why what MTSU is doing is so important.”
‘Off to new heights’
McPhee said the university “marks a new beginning of a new age in aviation education, not only in Tennessee but in the United States. MTSU will build on its reputation as one of the nation’s preeminent aviation schools, providing educational opportunities for future pilots, as well as those who seek careers in the vast field of aviation services.”
Months in the making because of Aerospace’s extraordinary growth, the MTSU Aerospace-Shelbyville announcement detailed the program’s need for expansion and an eventual departure from its longtime home at Murfreesboro Airport to a new state-of-the-art training campus off U.S. 231 in Bedford County.
A combined $62.2 million in state ($57.2 million) and university ($5 million) funding has paved the way for the move to include being in temporary facilities by the end of spring semester 2024, approximately 10 to 20 aircraft relocating to Shelbyville next spring. Groundbreaking is set for summer or fall 2024, with eventual relocation to Shelbyville by summer or fall 2026.
Aerospace plans to eventually have everything currently available at Murfreesboro Airport at its new home. This includes Flight Operations facilities (dispatch, briefing spaces, office), aircraft, simulators for the professional pilot concentration and fleet maintenance facilities. For the maintenance management concentration, lab spaces and classrooms and all the equipment they will utilize will also move.
“… As the transportation needs of our state and nation continue to evolve and expand, we are positioning ourselves to better sever the needs of our communities and students,” McPhee said. “Our new aviation campus promises to expand our capabilities even further, allowing us to expand our program, increase academic offerings and provide our students with the finest hands-on aviation program in America.
“Today, our program is set to take off to new heights (no pun intended) and we are excited for the future.”
‘Progress’ and a bright future
Shelbyville Mayor Randy Carroll said that when he took office in December 2022, the MTSU Aerospace campus’ proposed move to Shelbyville Airport “was one of the most important decisions,” which led the Shelbyville City Council and staff to research, refine and record each step of the proposal as well as hold public meetings to inform citizens and hear their input.
Carroll said city officials met multiple times with McPhee and MTSU staff to work through the complex lease terms and agreement to solidify a 40-year lease proposal. He noted Lee’s support as well as that of the General Assembly led by state Rep. Pat Marsh and state Sen. Shane Reeves to secure funding of the move.
“… We look forward to the future and being a partner with MTSU by offering careers in aviation to the students of the Aerospace Program,” Carroll said. “MTSU Shelbyville is grateful to be part of their future. As we look toward progress, we applaud those that have been and will be a part of the MTSU Shelbyville Aerospace Campus.”
The city helped MTSU kick of Thursday’s announcement ceremony with one of its fire trucks stationed on the tarmac shooting a series of water canopies over several MTSU Diamond Aircraft as they taxied just beyond the stage after landings from their brief flights from Murfreesboro as the audience looked on.
‘An unprecedented opportunity’
MTSU Board of Trustees Chairman Steve Smith, College of Basic and Applied Sciences Dean Greg Van Patten, alumnus and Airport Manager Paul Perry and Aerospace Chair Chaminda Prelis also shared remarks, with Prelis calling the project “an unprecedented opportunity for the university, the city of Shelbyville, Bedford County and the state of Tennessee that will set us apart from other collegiate aviation institutions.”
A resident of nearby Tullahoma, Tennessee, Prelis said “this is a defining moment in our history.… Our vision is that MTSU will become the premier collegiate aerospace institution in the country in supporting the next generation of aerospace professionals.”
Prelis thanked several program supporters, including partners Delta and Southwest Airlines; longtime supplier Diamond Aircraft Canada, whose CEO Kevin Sheng flew in for the announcement; representatives from other aircraft supplier Piper Aircraft; scholarship supporters including the family of late Aerospace alumna Shanda Carney Fanning; and Bernie Doubler, the department’s first graduate (Class ’72, with degree in aviation technology) who also attended and will help support the program on this special journey, he said.
Prelis also thanked the Department of Aerospace faculty and staff who will be integral in the transition to the new campus in coming years.
“The dedication and hard work of these extraordinary group of individuals are immeasurable as they all go far above and beyond their calling to support our students,” he said. “I will rely on their knowledge and expertise when we meet with the engineering and architectural teams, as they will be involved in helping to design the spaces, ensure the labs and hangars are well-equipped, determine the logistics of class schedules, and ensure that the students have a seamless transition.”
About MTSU Aerospace
Established in 1942, Aerospace is a signature department at MTSU and has grown into one of the most respected aerospace programs in the nation. Twenty full-time faculty members, 100-plus flight instructors, and over 1,000 students place it among the largest of the nation’s collegiate aviation programs. Students from 32 states and 16 foreign countries have been drawn to study here. Aerospace graduates hold responsible positions with companies throughout the United States and Internationally.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)