KEYSTONE HEIGHTS, Fla. — There’s a revolution happening in Keystone Heights.
Frustrated after hearing stories of missionary students kept from becoming pilots because of the high cost of flight school, and motivated to spread their faith, a dozen professional pilots, noted theological scholars and others have convened in Keystone to make a better option available.
The first low-cost missionary flight school in the region — possibly in the country — begins classes with its first group of five students on Jan. 5.
“When we see these kids come through and they catch the heart of God and want to serve, and then they’re denied because of financial reasons,” college President Tim Huggins said during a recent interview, then shook his head. “It’s unreasonable.”
The idea for a low-cost flight school has been in the works for years, but only six months have passed since the group began working in earnest to get the College of Missionary Aviation off the ground.
For years, Huggins has held missionary aviation-focused summer programs at Lake Swan Camp in Melrose.
Time and again, he saw his students take an interest in performing missionary work in remote parts of the world, then be stymied by the price of flight school.
Huggins received his flight training in the military, and flew helicopters before becoming a commercial pilot for Atlanta-based ExpressJet, but the more direct route is to go to flight school.
Learning to fly could run you $150,000 to $200,000 by the end of the degree program, Huggins said.
Students who take on loans can pay them off eventually if they become commercial pilots, but missionaries typically make just enough money to subsist.
At the same time, fewer missionaries becoming pilots means there’s a lack of people to fly the aircraft that already belong to missionary groups.
Missionary pilots are often working in extremely remote areas, where a part of their daily life is flying supplies and medicine to villagers, Huggins said.
Where there are no pilots, it could take days or weeks for the supplies to reach the people who need them, so there’s a great need to train students and get them out to those places as quickly as possible, he said.
One reason flight school is so expensive is that new airplanes are expensive — up to three-quarters of a million dollars, sometimes.
By contrast, the College of Missionary Aviation is running almost entirely on donations.
The office and classroom space was donated by Friendship Bible Church, of which Huggins has been a member for 25 years.
The library of 36,000 books came with the academic dean, the Rev. Jeffery A. Mackey.
The faculty is also joined by retired Florida Air National Guard Lt. Col. Buck Burney.
So far, the school has received nine donated planes.
“God’s just piling them in on us,” Huggins said.
The total cost of the eight-quarter program is $45,000.
Students will receive 120 credit hours of instruction in theology, cultural anthropology and flight training.
They will graduate at the end of two years with a bachelor’s degree in missions, also known as cross-cultural studies, with a specialization in aviation.
Housing is available to students at a cost of $250 per month.
Frank Smith, director of student life and former dean of students at Toccoa Falls College, said the residence has been in his family since 1960.
His parents had to sell it a few years ago, but it happened to be for sale when the college was looking for a student residence.
Smith bought the house in foreclosure earlier this year.
“I never had any idea that I’d be owning it,” he said.
With just a few weeks to go before the first day of classes, Huggins, Smith and college director of maintenance Dean Brock, a former Air Force C-141 flight engineer, met in early December to take one of their college airplanes out on their leased airstrip for the first time.
The college signed a 20-year lease with the Keystone Airport Authority, which will be beneficial to both parties, airport office manager Maria Gall said.
“I think it’s our responsibility now to give back to the community,” she said, as well as the world through the missions.
The morning was windy and cold, but the joyous occasion buoyed the men, who took iPhone photos of the college logo on the tail of the Cessna 172 sitting on the future site of a small hangar.
“We’re doing the right thing at the right time with the right people,” Huggins said. “And God’s gonna send us the right students.”