Flying high: Sierakowski brothers stretch their wings at Austin Peay
Clarksville, TN (10/10/2023) — Austin Peay State University's rotary-wing program is still young, but has already drawn students from around the country to Clarksville to experience the exclusive benefits only found at Outlaw Field's Hangar 5.
Take the Sierakowski brothers. They hail from Wisconsin, far from Tennessee's sunny skies. Younger brother Ben started taking aviation lessons in high school, building flight hours whenever he could. "I've always wanted to fly. That's been my dream," he said.
When Ben was in the process of selecting a college, he had a clear vision of his academic path and, together with his father, Michael, extensively researched flight schools across the nation. The program at Austin Peay immediately caught their attention since it was distinguished for its expertise in aviation and happened to be stationed at a hangar close to Fort Campbell.
"It's a program specializing in rotary wing aviation, crafted with the expertise of professionals who share ties with the aviation field," Ben said. Additionally, his family's military connections to Fort Campbell helped influence his decision.
Meanwhile, older brother Jacob initially studied communications at Marquette, near their family. But convinced he wasn't on the right path, he visited Austin Peay and confirmed much of the research done by Ben and their father. "I didn't want to do communications. I wanted to fly," he said.
The aviation program at Austin Peay trains students to become Federal Aviation Administration Certified Flight Instructors (CFIs), preparing graduates for aviation careers. Jacob is further along as a junior, and Ben recently enrolled as a freshman.
Austin Peay's aviation facility houses Robinson R44 helicopters. Students take ground school courses before heading to the hangar for flight time, but the hands-on approach-putting students in the air and giving them the resources, confidence and a sense of autonomy and ownership-is a rarity among aviation programs and played a large role in drawing the Sierakowskis to Clarksville.
"We like how the program is structured. It's just, 'Let's go fly,'" Ben said. It not only teaches flying skills but instills professional knowledge, Jacob added. "They put you in the pilot's seat."
The hangar community facilitates student success through mentorship. Ben describes it as "close-knit," with "everyone there to help." As an older student, Jacob is there to guide his younger brother, providing insider tips and motivation, although Ben's experience flying has made acclimating to life in the hangar a relative breeze.
"We really get a chance to learn by example of just watching the guys in the hangar," Ben said.
Looking ahead, the brothers have aviation business aspirations, perhaps emergency transport or charters. Jacob is interested in search and rescue, and Ben may join the military after graduating.
For now, all options are on the table as they continue accruing flight hours and working toward their degrees. They will help each other-and they will compete with each other too, for flight time and in the classroom, each measuring himself against the other.
With a global pilot shortage, Austin Peay aims to expand the talent pipeline. The Sierakowskis seem poised to launch aviation careers after finding their wings at Austin Peay. As Ben puts it, "This program is preparing us for the future."
The aviation industry promises high demand and high wages for qualified pilots. Commercial airlines are offering large sign-on bonuses to recruit crew members. Hands-on training empowers Austin Peay students to take advantage of these opportunities.
If the Sierakowski brothers are any indication, Austin Peay has its model right. The program has propelled these Wisconsin transplants toward their dreams, and the sky's the limit.