Bert Mackentepe knows a thing or two about flying.
He earned his private pilot license when he was still in high school. He went on to earn a degree in business from the University of Alabama, and ended up coming back home and teaching in the Wallace State flight program in 1980.
More than 30 years later, he’s still at it.
As director and chief instructor, Mackentepe has seen thousands of students come through the program, both degree and non-degree seeking.
“We have former students whose children are now coming through,” he said. “We’ve been blessed with good personnel, and the administration at the college has been very supportive.”
The college offers an associate’s degree in flight technology as well as certificates for students not interested in a formal degree.
“We have beginning, intermediate and advanced students in everything from flight instructor, private license and helicopter,” Mackentepe said.
Ground school instructors and equipment are available seven days a week.
“It’s a very flexible program,” he said. “Most of our students have jobs. It’s an expensive program with equipment rental and everything. So our students have jobs to help offset those expenses, and the program is flexible enough to work around those schedules.”
The flight program has a good reputation in the industry, Mackentepe said.
“We have students go all the way through and go to work for airlines, law enforcement, and medical services,” he said. “We’ve trained thousands of students. We’ve had several excellent flight instructors, FAA (Federal Aviation Association) examiners and inspectors affiliated with the program over the years. We’ve had several former students come back as instructors over the years.”
Students interested in the degree program enroll in traditional school semesters. For those interested in a certificate can sign up year round.
“We offer TBI, Training for Business and Industry,” Mackentepe said. “Enrollment for that is anytime. You can’t apply that training toward a degree, but you can get your certification. This is perfect for the professionals who are not interested in another degree. These are people who are just interested in learning to fly for their own personal use.”
Now is a good time to enroll in a flight program.
“There are lots of Vietnam era vets who are getting to retirement age,” he said. “That’s opening a lot of positions. New pilots have lots of opportunities.”
As the economy recovers, so does the need for corporate aviation.
“Corporate aviation is coming back,” he said. “Corporations have a more erratic schedule and can’t always depend on commercial airline schedules. So they fly. More opportunities are coming up with corporate aviation.”
Flight opportunities are also available in law enforcement, commercial airlines and medical services.
Mackentepe said the program is seeing a lot of interest, including veterans.
“We’re seeing a lot of vets coming in with post 9-11 GI benefits,” he said.
The flight program, based at the Cullman Airport-Folsom Field in Vinemont, has a good working relationship with government entities.
“The airport board comes to us a lot,” Mackentepe said. “We’re up there flying every day. So we can tell them of any issues we run across, things we see. And they can count our traffic toward grants and things like that. It’s been a good marriage. We’ve had a good partnership with the airport, city, county and college.”
But Mackentepe won’t take credit for the success the flight program has enjoyed.
“I sit on the shoulders of giants,” he said. “We’ve been blessed with good help over the years.”
The FAA Safety Team recently named Mackentepe the 2012 Flight Instructor of the Year for the Alabama/Northwest Florida Area. “The depth of knowledge and experience you possess are exemplary attributes that the FAASTeam needs to promote aviation safety,” said William Hattaway, the FAASTeam program manager said in Mackentepe’s award letter.
“Unfortunately, they can only award it to one person,” he said. “Maybe I was just the oldest.”
Mackentepe’s interest in flying goes back to elementary school.
“My dad was a flight instructor,” he said. “He took me for a ride when I was about 10 years old. I didn’t realize at the time, but I guess he sort of set the hook. Then in high school, I started hanging out at the airport. I met a lot of the pilots and folks who worked there. They were a really great group of people.”
So Mackentepe get interested in obtaining his private pilot certification and did so in 1966, when he was still in high school.
“Plus, it was a great way to meet girls,” he said with a laugh. “When you’re a high school senior and take a girl on a date up in an airplane, you can’t top that.”
Mackentepe has enjoyed his time in the aviation industry.
“I’ve met a lot of interesting and famous people over the years,” he said. “Sam Walton came through here years ago. I’ve met a lot of coaches — Nick Saban, Gene Chizik, Bobby Bowden, Steve Spurrier.”
Mackentepe has crossed paths with several musicians, including Hank Williams Jr., the Beach Boys and Conway Twitty.
“You never know who’s going to come through here,” he said. “I could tell you some funny stories, but you’d have to change names to protect the guilty.”
Mackentepe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org