Veterans, Civilians, Career Changers Find Exciting Start to New Career in Aviation

04/06/2016 by Lisa Proulx

PORTSMOUTH - Before he learned to fly helicopters at Great Bay Community College, Keith Turgeon was working in a trade he didn’t love. “I didn’t want to spend my life doing something I didn’t enjoy. I was looking for something more exciting,” he said.
He found excitement in the aviation program at Great Bay Community College, where Turgeon is learning to fly helicopters. He is one of the first students without a background in the military to enroll in the new two-year Aviation Technology program offered through a partnership with Great Bay and Seacoast Helicopters of Portsmouth, N.H.  Doing so satisfied a long-held desire to fly and learn a career that’s different from anything else he’s considered, and at the same time add unrivaled adventure.
When he graduates, Turgeon expects to work in the aviation field, and hopes soon after to earn an annual salary of at least $60,000 and as much as $250,000 as he advances in his career. His potential jobs include working as a flight instructor, flying supplies and workers to remote job sites, giving sightseeing tours or working for energy companies. He could work in law enforcement, search and rescue, emergency medical services (EMS – MedEvac) or wildlife management. Training to be a helicopter pilot also opens up employment opportunities in airport management and aviation maintenance, said Bruce P. Cultrera, president and CEO of Seacoast Helicopters of Portsmouth, which operates the program in partnership with Great Bay.

“We’re trying to attract people who are looking for something exciting and rewarding to do with their lives, and skills that are job-ready,” Cultrera said.
Many students who enroll at Seacoast Helicopters through Great Bay are military veterans, because they qualify for Veterans Administration benefits that help offset the cost of the tuition. Turgeon said he couldn’t have enrolled if not for the student loans offered through Great Bay. “That makes it a lot easier to pay for it, and I don’t have to begin paying the loans until after I graduate. It gives me time to get a job,” he said.
The cost is worth it, he said. A four-year degree at a state or private school would cost as much or more than the two-year associate’s degree in Aviation Technology at Great Bay. And flying helicopters is far more exciting than any program at another school. He learned that lesson already, when he got a degree in heating and air-conditioning, began working in the field and realized he didn’t love it.
He flew a helicopter the first time he went up with Seacoast Helicopters on a flight designed to explore his level of interest, before he made the commitment to enroll. “By the time you get to Nubble Light, you’re flying it yourself,” he said of the Maine coastal landmark, just a few miles from the Seacoast tarmac on the Pease Tradesport in Portsmouth. “Once I did that, I was hooked. It gives you such a different perspective on the things you see every day.”
Students log 200 hours of flight time by the time they graduate from the Great Bay program. Typically, the first job after graduation is as a flight instructor, which allows pilots to continue to log their own hours while teaching others to fly. After pilots log 1,200 hours, they have the experience that allows them to pursue commercial work, which leads to jobs in the scenic-tour industry, film and photography, agriculture, energy and other similar fields. Those jobs pay between $60,000 and $90,000 annually, Cultrera said.
The next benchmark is 3,500 hours of flying time. After pilots achieve that level, they’re qualified for jobs in law enforcement, search and rescue, news gathering, emergency medical services and corporate chartering, among others. Annual salaries for those jobs begin at $100,000, Cultrera said.
The program at Great Bay is the first step toward that end for aviation students.
John Goudin, 24, enrolled as a former U.S. Marine, using his VA benefits to help defray the cost. He worked on heavy-lift CH-35 helicopters while in the Marine Corps, and wanted to continue his career.  Nearly all his work has been in the aviation field. After receiving training through Great Bay, he hopes to re-enlist and fly Blackhawk helicopters for the military. If that doesn’t work out, he will explore a private-sector flying job. Soon after he left the Marines, Goudin worked for a company that built drones for the Army and Air Force. That work left him unsatisfied, he said.
“It just wasn’t something I wanted to do,” he said. “So instead I found something that I was interested in and that was in my field, so I gave it a shot.”

Lee McKay is just beginning his career as a flight instructor. An eight-year Army veteran who works for Seacoast Helicopters as an instructor, he took his first ride on a helicopter in 2005 as an enlisted soldier as part of a transport from one base to another. That ride sealed his desire to fly helicopters.
“Being able to pick straight up and go and not have to worry about roads or stop signs, I took it all in and never forgot the feeling of being totally free. It was unlike anything I had felt before,” he said. “With that first ride, I knew what I wanted to do. It’s just an awesome feeling. That’s best word to describe it. The views are awesome, and the adrenaline rush is awesome.”
He hopes to impart that same sense of wonder to the students who enroll in the Aviation Technology program.
“It’s a great career,” he said. “It’s fun to fly, and it’s also exciting and so different than anything else you might think you want to do.”
Students can apply through April 15th for the next program, starting May 23rd.  To learn more, visit or call (603) 427-7600.