Fresno Unified students could soon be leaving high school with their private pilot’s license, thanks to a new aviation academy coming to the district as soon as fall 2025.
FUSD is planning to build a dedicated hangar and classrooms at the Fresno Chandler Executive Airport in southwest Fresno, where students can learn to fix planes as a mechanic or take to the skies as a pilot.
“The sky is not the limit anymore,” said Trustee Valerie Davis following a presentation to the school board last Wednesday.
With shortages in both pilots and aircraft mechanics, the program aims to prepare students for in-demand, high-paying jobs. It will do so by providing free technical training that’s otherwise costly and difficult to find in the Fresno area.
“Just to get a private pilot’s license,” said assistant superintendent Jeremy Ward in an interview with The Bee’s Education Lab, “it depends on who you’re talking to, but it’s over $10-15,000. The opportunity for students to finish that while in high school, or immediately thereafter, puts them so far ahead.”
The goal of the program, he added, will be for students to earn at least a year’s worth of college credit — and shave off at least a year’s worth of college tuition.
“This is a truly one-of-a-kind program, not only in the state but around the nation,” Ward said, “and we’re thrilled that it’s happening right here. We’re thrilled that it’s happening within a community that deserves to have access to this.”
The district is touting the program as an opportunity for southwest Fresno students in particular, given its location at Fresno’s historic airport on the city’s westside.
“This isn’t just a significant investment in our school district. It’s a significant investment in that neighborhood,” said Trustee Claudia Cazares during the board presentation.
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Fresno Unified plans new airport campus
The aviation opportunities will be extended to students as early as elementary school via field trips to the Chandler airport campus, staff noted during the board presentation.
High school students will be able to apply for between 250 and 350 spots, Ward said. The district is anticipating high interest, he added, and if the number of applicants exceeds the number of available slots, it will default to a lottery system.
Students who enroll will go to the airport campus for half the day, then spend the other half of the day at their home high school.
The price tag of the program isn’t clear yet, Ward told the Ed Lab, as staff still need to calculate construction costs. But he said it’s likely a multimillion dollar investment.
The funding for the academy will come from a few streams, he added. That includes carryover funds from California’s Expanded Learning Opportunities Program — a $4 billion initiative from the state to help districts grow their after-school and summer enrichment programs — plus a few Career Technical Education grants the district has received.
Unlike other aviation programs and classes in the country, students won’t be footing any of the bill or paying any fee to enroll.
Students won’t have to figure out their own transportation to the airport, either. Rather, they can take a bus from any region of the district there.
The financial benefits of this program could continue after participants graduate, too.
Aircraft mechanics in California received an average salary of roughly $77,000 in May 2022, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. California commercial pilots’ average salary came in at over $130,000 in the same year, and was even higher for airline pilots, copilots and flight engineers at over $250,000.
Other aviation training opportunities in Fresno
Other aviation opportunities in the Fresno area include a program at San Joaquin Valley College, which just received a donated jet from SkyWest Airlines that will give students more hands-on experiences in repairing aircraft.
There’s also the Next Generation Aviation Academy, run by the nonprofit organization New Vision Aviation.
That program focuses on granting scholarships to children in west Fresno to help them attain pilot training they may not be able to otherwise afford.
Fresno Unified’s aviation academy isn’t the only new educational facility coming to west Fresno in the near future.
Fresno City College is building its $86.5 million West Campus on Church and Walnut avenues, in what city leaders called an effort to offer residents never-before-seen access to higher education.
Trustee Cazares urged the district to keep in close contact with west Fresno residents as plans for the new aviation academy move forward.
“I want to make sure that staff has involved our community members from southwest Fresno,” she said, “before we make any other major decisions on this subject.”
Ward said that’s the next step in the process.
“We’ll host some community meetings within the region of town that this will be held in,” he said, “and it’ll give folks in that community a chance to be able to learn about the plans, provide feedback, ask questions, share concerns if they have any.”
While fall 2025 is the “generous” estimate of when this program might be up and running, it may not be until 2026.
“We’re not going to walk away from fall of ’25 until it’s clear, it’s not happening,” Ward said.
The Education Lab is a local journalism initiative that highlights education issues critical to the advancement of the San Joaquin Valley. It is funded by donors. Learn about The Bee’s Education Lab at its website.