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Coast Guard, university team up in a quest for more pilots

A Coast Guard HC-130 Hercules airplane crew from Air Station Elizabeth City, N.C., conducts pre-flight checks before departing the air station on a training flight, Jan. 8, 2019.

CORINNE ZILNICKI/U.S. COAST GUARD

By JEFF HAMPTON | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: February 15, 2019

ELIZABETH CITY, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Elizabeth City State University, a historically black college with the only four-year aviation degree in the state, could help the Coast Guard increase its number of pilots.

The university lies about a mile from one of the largest Coast Guard bases in the country where 36 pilots fly helicopters and airplanes on 200 to 300 rescue missions a year. There are about 1,000 pilots across the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard and the college have signed agreements in the past promising that local service members attend ECSU functions such as graduations and meet regularly with the school's military affairs officer.

Rear Admiral Keith Smith, commander of the Fifth Coast Guard District and Karrie Dixon, ECSU chancellor, signed an agreement Thursday to continue close relations with an emphasis on recruiting, exchange of expertise and involvement in the aviation program.

"We need pilots," Smith said after the signing ceremony. "This is a perfect match."

Drone technology could also be part of the partnership, Smith said. ECSU will start in the fall a four-year degree in drone piloting and maintenance. The Coast Guard plans to expand its unmanned aircraft systems for national security operations, according to the service's website.

Lt. Philip Weston Dodson, originally from South Mills, graduated from the ECSU aviation program in 2012 with a commercial and private pilot license. Now he is a helicopter pilot at the Elizabeth City air station. The training helped him at the start of his career, he said.

"No doubt, you have a foundation," Dodson said.

Demand on pilots has increased, according to statistics. The Elizabeth City Coast Guard Air Station flew 207 missions saving 175 lives last year, according to Coast Guard spokesman Kip Wadlow. The station averaged 271 search and rescue flights saving 140 lives over the last three years. The three years before that, the station averaged 166 flights saving 85 lives.

The Coast Guard offers a scholarship for students majoring in needed fields such as math, science and aviation. So far, 18 students have graduated from ECSU under the program which pays the final two years of school, books, housing and a monthly salary. As part of the contract, the student becomes a member of the Coast Guard, goes through boot camp and participates in military activities. Later the recruit attends officer candidate school and serves a three-year active duty tour. About 40 historically black schools participate, including Hampton University and Norfolk State University.

One third of the Coast Guard Academy classes of 2018 and 2019 are minority, the highest level in its history, said Coast Guard commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft in a Coast Guard blog. Enlisted and warrant workforces are 27 percent minority, he said.

A few firsts are mentioned on Coast Guard and black history websites. Bobby Wilks was the first black Coast Guard aviator in 1957. Jeanine Menze was the first black female Coast Guard aviator in 2005. La'Shanda Holmes became the Coast Guard's first black female helicopter pilot in 2010.

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