Moody Aviation to leave Elizabethton

By Megan R. Harrell
STAR STAFF
mharrell@starhq.com

   In June, after more than 35 years in Elizabethton, Moody Bible Institute (MBI) will begin the process of phasing out its aviation program. The class of 2005 will be the last to graduate from the school that is responsible for over half of missionary aviation personnel currently serving around the world.
   The atmosphere at Moody Aviation was sober yesterday, as students and staff struggled to come to terms with the changes facing the ministry. Students currently enrolled in the aviation program will be able to complete their training in Elizabethton, while all new students will be referred to Spokane, Wash.
   The program in Washington State will offer basic biblical, flight and maintenance training.
   "It does not effect the students already enrolled here, but the hardest part for us is seeing the impact on the instructors and the hurt it is causing them and the Moody family," third year flight student, Ben Zeigler said.
   MBI senior management in Chicago, Ill. met with the faculty and staff at the local aviation school Wednesday morning to discuss the decision made by the Institute's board of trustees earlier in the week. They stated that recent financial difficulties associated with the national economy has caused the fixture in the community to close its doors.
   Moody officials have attributed the phase out of the aviation program to the high cost of subsidizing it in an economy where insurance and health expenses continue to rise. They stated the Institute has also suffered a significant decline in donations that has lead to cutbacks in several ministries and operations at its Chicago campus.
   All 39 employees at the aviation school will eventually be effected by the cutbacks. The six airframe and powerplant instructors will be the first to be impacted when the maintenance program is terminated this June.
   Some of the instructors have devoted several years to equipping young men and women with the aviation skills necessary for missions work over seas. Instructor Cecil Bedford has been at Moody Aviation for nearly 30 years. He received his training at the school and currently serves as the director of maintenance.
   Bedford stated that he and Moody Aviation President, Ed Robinson, are working to find employment options for the instructors who will soon find themselves without jobs. He said they are in the process of contacting colleges in this region, as well as others.
   The relocation of Moody staff members and students means the end of a relationship between the school and the City of Elizabethton and Carter County that has thrived for more than three decades. Bedford expressed his appreciation to the community for embracing those who have passed through its doors over the years.
   "It has been an honor for us to have been a part of this community," Bedford said. "We have been accepted by this community, and that is also an honor. I trust that in the time we have been here we have rendered appropriate service to this community."
   City Manager, Charles Stahl, mirrored Bedford's sentiments on behalf of Elizabethton. "They have been a great corporate citizen. The folks that have attended the school past and present have been tremendous assets to our community," Stahl said. "We appreciate their involvement and they certainly will be missed. There is not an easy way to say goodbye."
   Stahl acknowledged the city's interest in assisting the Airport Commission in purchasing the Moody property when it is vacated in 2005. He recognized the positive impact expanding the airport would have on the city and county.
   "It would be a great opportunity for the community in the face of some sad news," Stahl said.
   William Greene, who is chairman of the five member Airport Commission, is confident in the city's ability to purchase the property. He stated that the purchase could be partially funded by the Appalachian Regional Commission, which provides federal money for the improvement of communities.
   Although Greene is reluctant to see Moody Aviation leave town, he believes the city will be able to generate a positive cash flow by moving the airport's fixed base of operation into the Moody buildings, and by renting out the hanger space.
   Greene was president of the Chamber of Commerce 37 years ago, and was instrumental in bringing Moody Aviation to Elizabethton. He stated that over the years the airport has benefited from having the school across the runway.
   "They have raised the level of safety and professionalism in a ripple effect around the Elizabethton airport probably higher than any other community airport in America," Greene said. "That comes from instructors and students knowing what is right and making sure we did it right."
   Greene said he is continuing to work with area vocational and technical schools, and is also looking into other sources to see if there is some way the state of Tennessee can intervene in order to keep the aviation school in Elizabethton.
   If efforts to keep the school in Elizabethton fail, no portion of community will be impacted greater than local churches. Luis O'Bourke pastors Elizabethton Christian and Missionary Alliance Church where over 25 percent of his congregation is affiliated with Moody Aviation.
   "With the faithfulness of the kids who serve in so many different areas in churches, I can't even imagine how many holes will have to be filled," O'Bourke said. "Our own church people have such a heavy investment in them spiritually and emotionally that we cannot conceive EAC without Moody students and staff."
   Though the chances of keeping Moody Aviation in Elizabethton are waning, members of the Moody family wait for a miracle and ask one last favor from the community that has embraced them for so many years - the faculty, staff, and students at Moody Aviation ask Elizabethton and Carter County to pray.