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Students prepare to take flight with aviation ground school

  • W&M from the air:
    W&M from the air:  An Shen '20, a student in the ground school class, took this photo of campus while on a flight above Williamsburg. Although the ground school does not include a flight component, the hope is that its students will be prepared for flight training afterwards.  Photo courtesy of An Shen '20
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William & Mary students and faculty now have the opportunity to get one step closer to earning a private pilot certificate by attending the on-campus ground school taught by a Federal Aviation Administration-certified flight instructor.

After revitalizing the longstanding Aviation Club in the fall 2016 semester with the help of Psychology Professor Harvey Langholtz, Thomas Kanuch ’18 — the president of the W&M Aviation Club — began organizing the ground school after receiving a large response to the idea.

Open to the entire W&M community from undergraduates to faculty, the ground school, which is being offered for the first time this semester, hosts 13 student attendees each Monday night.


“Dr. Langholtz and I were trying to discuss what the club could do in a way to reach out,” Kanuch said. “We thought that a ground school would actually go really far, because it would not only take people who are interested in aviation in the field, but it would also bring in people who are maybe just interested in getting a pilot’s license.”

The ultimate purpose of the ground school is to prepare students to pass the FAA written knowledge exam required before taking separate off-campus flight lessons to obtain a certificate. Previous knowledge about flight or aviation is not required to take the course. Taught by certified flight instructor David Otey, students work their way through Guided Flight Discovery, the private pilot manual that prepares individuals to pass one of the components to become FAA-certified.

“The idea is that when they’re done, they can go take the ground school portion of the test and be able to pass, and hopefully, then move on to taking flights lessons,” Kanuch noted.

According to Langholtz, aviation consists of a lot more than flying an airplane. For a fee of $140 to cover the cost of the instructor, students learn about those other important aspects of aviation, including topics such as weather patterns, radio communications, emergency situations, aerodynamic principles and instruments.

The ground school operates in conjunction with the Williamsburg Flight Center, which provides the certified flight instructor for the class. Otey, who has had a lifelong passion for aviation, structures the class as a comprehensive, interactive and applicable discussion on the information and material in the textbook, as well as his own personal experience with flight.

“The course is sort of two-fold,” Otey said. “We teach to the book to make sure that they’re able to go through the written test and get a passing score. But also, you need to give them more of a practical understanding overall so that they’re able to explain what they’re doing and how things work.”

Shaun Stewart, the owner and chief pilot of the Williamsburg Flight Center, added, “It all is integrated. The things they’re learning in the ground school with David are basically the building blocks to understanding how the airplane flies, how it operates, the airspace you’re flying in and some of the legalities, the different regulations that are set forth by the FAA.

“It’s really actually nice if you do the ground course at the same time, at least in close proximity, to doing flight training. They definitely complement each other.”

Stewart and Otey hope that students will take the interest and knowledge gained through the ground school and transition it into flight training afterwards.

“I feel like a lot of students, even though they may be interested in flying, don’t really know where to go,” Otey said. “So, having the ground school class at W&M has sort of given them a bridge to introduce themselves to aviation.”

Steward echoed this sentiment.

“It’s a direct path to flight training,” he said.

In fact, according to Otey, he sees students growing impassioned by the material they are learning, with two students already having signed up to take flight lessons.

“I think it’s unique, because as of right now it’s not a four-credit course for the College,” Otey said. “This is just something that they’ve clearly sought out to experience for themselves, rather than it just being another class that they’re required to take. That makes it easy for me as a teacher, because I know that there’s some passion there.”

Although the Aviation Club and ground school do not organize flights, the ground school offers a unique opportunity that is part of the process of gaining a private pilot certificate. Moreover, the low cost to attend the class makes the opportunity more financially accessible to students who may not have had the chance otherwise, said Kanuch.

“I feel like having a sort of discounted way is very good, because one of the big obstacles, I would say, to getting a pilot’s license is the cost,” Kanuch said. “By fostering the group, we can bring people who might not have had the chance, might not have had the funds or means to take a ground school, they can now come and do it.”

The ground school will be offered again in the fall 2017 semester. Those interested should email Thomas Kanuch at

“There’s just so much potential for a community of people who love aviation,” Kanuch said. “It’s an interesting experience. Even if you’re not too sure if you want to get your full pilot’s license, take it and just get a little taste of what it could be.”