The Aviation Center doesn't look like any other school building within Toledo Public Schools and that's exactly the point.

Housed in a hangar at Toledo Express Airport - at the end of a long row of airline industry-related companies - the center is a hands-on, three year Career Tech program that prepares students to become FAA-approved maintenance technicians.

Yes, there is a standard classroom for the book work and one with computers at every desk so students can study diagrams of plane parts. But there's also a large room filled with plane engines that seniors take completely apart and put back together and a cavernous hangar filled with the three planes the center owns, as well as parts of planes that are either being taken apart or put together.

"We are arguably the oldest program in the country," says Brad McDonald, who is in his fourth year at the center, located at 11791 W. Airport Service Rd. in Swanton. He is one of the two instructors who teach more than 50 students.The second instructor, Richard Naves, is a graduate of the program and has taught there for more than two decades.

Mr. McDonald says an aviation club was started in the late 1920s in Toledo (with the Wright Brothers signing the incorporation papers) and that club became a program at the former Macomber High School in the 1930s. The current facility opened in 1976 and is operated as a Career Tech program under Bowsher High School.

This school year, there are 53 students at the center: juniors and seniors are there from 7 until 11:45 a.m. and then return to their home high school, and sophomores go to their home schools first and then are at the center from 12:30 until 3 p.m.

"This is a TPS program, but it's open to any student in the state of Ohio," Mr. McDonald says, adding that the makeup is about 50 percent of students from TPS schools and the other half from surrounding school districts, including Sylvania, Evergreen, Lake Township and Washington Local. There are even home-schooled students in the program.

The sophomores concentrate on the general issues of aircraft maintenance (including hardware and electricity), while the juniors work on the airframe (learning about the controls, hydraulics and landing gear) and the seniors learn the powerplant (which is anything engine related). Sophomores are required to have 400 classroom hours, while junior and seniors need 750 classroom hours. 

If all goes according to plan, students graduate from their home high schools and then test for and receive the Airframe and Powerplant certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration. The students also earn enough college credits for a two-year associate's degree. They are then certified to work on airplanes of all types and can get jobs with salaries of $45,000 to $85,000.

 Mr. McDonald says students need strong math and science skills and "an absolute attention to detail."

"And integrity, integrity, integrity. That's what we demand out here," he says. "We solve problems here by avoiding them."

Much of his philosophy stems from his 25-year career coaching youth football and baseball, and from his own experiences.

Mr. McDonald, who got his pilot's license at 18 and, at age 21, talked himself into a job at one of the companies at the airport because he wanted to build jet engines, came to the Aviation Center four years ago and found he was a perfect fit.

"This is my calling," says Mr. McDonald, who has his teaching certificate. "I teach the way I coach. I say this is the hardest thing I've ever done but I haven't had to work a day since I started."

When he started, there were only 15 students and there was talk of shuttering the program. But Mr. McDonald is also a professional promoter, so he launched a yearly Expo and Open House. The event has proved so popular that more than 6,000 people attended the fourth one, which was held on the September 12th and 13th at the school.

There were free plane rides for youth ages 8-17, an F-16, C-47, WWII and other aircraft on display, and, for the first time, a Tuskegee Airmen Mobile Theater (brought in by the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority).

Also key to the event was students on hand to answer any questions because, as Mr. McDonald puts it, "The students are the best advertising."

Attending a camp at the center in sixth grade is what got Anthony Gonzalez-Monroe interested in an aviation career.

"I'm a hands-on person and this is better than just looking at a [black] board all day," says the senior at Anthony Wayne High School. "And I love airplanes."

Anthony's dream is to get the FAA certificate and then work for a company like Gulfstream.

"I'll go anywhere and hopefully I can work on their bigger models someday," he says. He also hopes to go to college and earn a management degree.

Nathaniel Maddox, who will graduate in the spring from Bowsher High School, has his sights set on The Ohio State University - and getting his pilot's license. He recently became a member of the 180th Fighter Wing of the Air National Guard, headquartered at Toledo Express Airport.

"I love the hands-on atmosphere, which includes help from your peers as well as the instructors," he says.

Ryan Maser, who was home-schooled, is also a hands-on person, but he was drawn to the program for another reason.

"I like the small group atmosphere, where instructors learn students' strengths and weaknesses," he says. "It's a lot of fun here and I enjoy the camaraderie."

Ryan plans to earn the FAA certificate, get a job in the industry to save money for college - and then eventually get his doctorate in history from the University of Toledo.

Attracting such diverse students, Mr. McDonald says talk is growing to turn the school into a four-year Aviation Academy.

Click here to see a Channel 13 report on the center:

Click here to learn more about The TPS Aviation Technician Program

Updated on September 14, 2015