Company brings new opportunities to Bladen County airport, including flight lessons

By Ivey Schofield

As a child, Sean Pridemore wanted to follow in the footsteps of his mother’s family and become a pilot. But after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he joined the Green Berets instead. 

“Obviously my mom wasn’t too happy about it,” Pridemore quipped. 

Two decades later, Pridemore is leaving the military and wants to reinvigorate his childhood dream of flying. 

Pridemore, who lives at Camp Mackall, enrolled a year ago in a self-paced flying course through Sovereign Aerospace. The faith-based and veteran-owned aviation company is based in Moore County but took over operations at the Curtis L. Brown Jr. Field Airport in Bladen County in April. 

Sean Pridemore, a member of the U.S. Army Special Forces, enrolled in flight lessons with Sovereign Aerospace and now serves as an intern for the company at the Bladen County airport.
Contributed photo

Sovereign Aerospace has already started a flight school at the airport, which is in Elizabethtown, and plans to create an apprenticeship program and a maintenance technician school with the help of Bladen Community College. In the next five years, it also plans to create at least 75 jobs, company officials say.

The airport, which currently employs 90 people and has an annual economic output of $21.1 million, is smaller than some others in southeastern North Carolina, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation. The Columbus County Municipal Airport boasts 655 jobs and an annual economic impact of $171 million. The Laurinburg-Maxton Airport has 640 jobs and an annual economic impact of $165 million.

This year, Elizabethtown is asking for $2.5 million from the state legislature to create an “incubator” – or hangar and apron space that would eventually enable Sovereign Aerospace to offer jobs in manufacturing and aviation maintenance – at the southern end of the airport. 

Related: Elizabethtown has big plans, including a mixed-use project and airport upgrades

“That runway out there opens us up to the whole world, and we want to capture every minute,” Mayor Sylvia Campbell said during a ribbon-cutting event in April for Sovereign Aerospace.

In June, Sovereign Aerospace will host a summer camp for middle and high school students in an effort to show kids career possibilities they might not have thought possible. 

Curtis L. Brown Jr., the airport’s namesake, was born in Bladen County in 1956. After graduating from East Bladen High School, he attended the Air Force Academy and later became an astronaut. 

“There are people in your community like Curtis Brown,” Phillip “Slim” Thompson, chief executive officer and owner of Sovereign Aerospace, said in April. “You’ve just got to help us find them.”

Educational opportunities

Six people have already started pilot training at the Elizabethtown airport. They study on their own using an online curriculum and also get supervision from an instructor. The program includes about 24 lessons, said Ken Hadaway, director of operations and chief financial officer for Sovereign Aerospace. 

They’re currently learning how an aircraft works, from aerodynamics to instrumentation. Next, they’ll learn flight maneuvers like stalls and falls. Finally, they’ll practice turning at a constant rate of speed. 

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Sovereign Aerospace is also working with Bladen Community College to create a ground school, which would cover a third of the coursework related to the aircraft, before flying at the airport. The company already has access to a ground school in Moore County and is hoping to start one in Bladen County this year, Hadaway said.

In addition, the company could implement an aviation maintenance school at the Elizabethtown airport, which Hadaway said is a more difficult process than starting a pilot school. Structural components like engines and turbines could cost up to $2 million. 

Sovereign Aerospace has established an aviation maintenance apprenticeship program in Moore County, offering the chance to earn the accreditation over four years by job shadowing a certified technician. A supervisor who could oversee an apprentice will move to Elizabethtown this summer, Hadaway said. 

Bladen Community College President Amanda Lee said she’s excited to partner with the aviation company’s educational programs.

“We want to effectively support all these initiatives, so students and citizens in our area have what they need,” she said. “And I’m hoping that this really exciting job and this company that’s bringing in all different types of entry points will maybe be an attraction for people right now who are struggling to find their mark.”

The average per-capita income in Bladen County is less than $26,000. Certified aviation mechanics can earn $85,000 per year, while commercial pilots can earn $1.5 million, Hadaway said.

“I think (the Elizabethtown school) is going to have a huge impact,” he said.

Pridemore, who serves as an intern for Sovereign Aerospace, said businesses have been checking out the Elizabethtown airport since he began working there two months ago for two or three days each week. 

“They know this place is growing,” he said, “and they want to be a part of it.”