Since he was a teen Darren Large wanted to be a commercial pilot. Then an event that rocked aviation and the world, changed the course of his life too.
The searing tragedy of 9-11 and the ensuing turmoil in the world and in aviation caused Large to change direction as he entered college, though never far from flight.
His work in the decade since has touched everything in the airport management field, from overseeing snow-removal operations and managing large airfield construction projects to teaching 18-year-olds how to fly drones safely at Warren County Community College, which is building one of the best drone training programs in the country.
Now Large enters a new segment of his flight-filled career – as the president of the Northeast Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives (NEC/AAAE). The member-based group speaks out for airports regarding issues critical to the industry, representing facilities stretching from Delaware north to four Canadian provinces and to portions of Europe.
In that role, Large has several goals, but his top priority is developing Accredited Airport Executives (AAE) and young professionals entering the industry who will eventually become the core of the workforce.
Building new foundation
“Our operations are critical and require a certain type of talent. We need to do more to train and certify new people to work at our facilities and we need to help develop leaders in airport management,” Large says, pointing out that only a small percentage, less than 500 members of the American Association of Airport Executives are accredited airport executives (AAE’s).
“We need to develop good young professionals and build interest in our industry,” he says. “We used to get stacks of resumes for open positions at our facilities and now we see significantly fewer, and this is a national problem.”
Large in part blames changes in work itself. The nature of the business requires staffing 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with very little flexibility. The new workforce has a desire to work at home with an established schedule they can flex themselves.
“Airports aren’t like that. If we have a big storm or an emergency or something else happens, we could be here for days,” Large says. “We work hard, and our jobs are important and must be carried out routinely and precisely. That’s not the type of work everyone wants.”
But Large believes the industry offers fulfilling, interesting work, and good opportunities for young people to build strong careers.
“We just have to get the word out about what the industry can offer – including opportunities to grow and advance with new approaches to training and certification.”
When 9-11 hit, Large could see that for some time the opportunities in commercial flight would be limited, so he majored in another interest besides flight – history. The major allowed him to load up on aviation management courses as electives and complete his Private Pilot License. He ended up with a somewhat unique combination of a history major and aviation management minor.
Even before he graduated, he was working as an intern at Morristown Municipal Airport (MMU). Located in New Jersey, MMU is among the top 10 biggest general aviation facilities in the country, with more than 200 aircraft based there from a host of Fortune 500 companies.
Following his undergraduate work, he continued his education as part of the worldwide program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and began moving up the career ladder at Morristown, beginning as an operations coordinator, moving up to a projects & grants administrator and then facilities manager, where he oversaw airport construction. He eventually moved up to become the director of facilities and operations.
“I’ve done everything at an airport except accounting” he says. “And I’ve loved every part of it.”
He’s seen the airport through a Super Bowl at nearby MetLife stadium, which drove an increase in operations at Morristown Airport during the event. He’s been through crippling snowstorms (with the MMU snow team winning the prestigious Balchen/Post award for snow removal along the way) and he’s supervised VIP operations involving Air Force One.
“We’ve seen a little bit of everything, and it’s been crazy at times, but very satisfying to work with this group of professionals we have assembled here,” Large says.
That leads him, however, to reiterate his concern about the workforce. He notes that industry-wide there is a significant number of employees who will retire or may move on for other reasons, and he is concerned about the pool of workers to replace them.
A new responsibility
Large has always been concerned about safety, an awareness he says one gets as soon as you begin to work at an airport. And he’s grown to be interested in drones, flying them for fun and as part of his own drone photography firm.
That led him to Warren County Community College, which over the last decade has built one of the leading training programs for drone development, operation, and maintenance in the country, featuring a brand-new facility for drones and other robotics and what experts say is the broadest array of equipment available to students anywhere.
“I was excited to work with WarrenUAS and the impressive drone program at Warren because of the work they are doing in this incredibly fast-growing field, Large says. “But I also came to see that it was important for drone safety to be a focus for our industry as their use grows.”
As the drone industry continues to grow, colleagues have begun to share his concern. With operators entering from various backgrounds, it increases the potential of an incident.
“I teach a fundamental course in drone safety and drill home to the students how important it is that they realize they are flying an aircraft and that they have to respect airspace.”
“Darren is the perfect person for this position,” says Will Austin, the president of Warren who is on sabbatical for a year to build the WarrenUAS program. “He has steeped himself in the operation of an airport and can give our students that perspective and a better understanding of flight. But he also is acutely aware of the importance of safety – and we love having him be the one to firmly impress upon our students that their first responsibility is to fly drones responsibly.”
Large requires that students in his class know aviation law and the rules of aviation space. He takes them to the airport to go through a mock pre-flight process.
“I hope they will see how people at airports are methodical about their preparation for a flight and in their operation of aircraft. I want them to understand they have the same responsibilities.”
With his broad background in aviation and love of history, Large is in a unique position to see the future of drones as another “change point” in aviation, like periods that brought the use of balloons, the Wright Brothers flight, advancements from World War I & II in aeronautics and the eventual jet age, which all led to change industry wide.
“They really are the next big thing. I don’t even think we know yet how they will be used five years from now. I’m looking forward to seeing the growth of the industry and how it meshes with the flight industry now – and how it does it safely.”