John Sibole, director of aviation at Eastern Mennonite University at Lancaster, is awarded the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award at a ceremony on Saturday, May 14, by Elbert Bush (right), FAA Manager, Baltimore Flight Standards District Office, and Eric Manchon, FAA Manager, Harrisburg Flight Standards District Office. (Photo by Christy Kauffman)

EMU’s director of aviation honored with FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award

At age 16, working as a “line-boy” at a local airport, John Sibole began dreaming of a career in aviation.In the years since, he’s flown in the US Air Force, run his own flight school, worked as an engineer, airline pilot and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety inspector. Since 2019, Sibole has served as director of aviation at Eastern Mennonite University at Lancaster.

On Saturday, the full measure of his accomplishments and legacy in aviation was honored with the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. The award, presented by the Federal Aviation Administration and named in honor of pioneering aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright, recognizes individuals who have exhibited “exemplary aviation expertise, distinguished professionalism, and steadfast commitment: with 50 or more years of safe piloting and/or aircraft operations experience.”

John Sibole in 1966, waiting to take his first flight from Philadelphia International Airport in the small plane belonging to a family friend.

Sibole received the honor during an event at the Lancaster Airport to celebrate the graduation of EMU’s first cohort of aviation students — three women who are the most recent of the many pilots he’s mentored over the years of his long career. The event, hosted by program partner Aero-Tech Services, Inc, was held on Saturday, May 14, after EMU at Lancaster’s main Commencement ceremony. 

“I am so grateful for the critical role John Sibole played, from conceptualization to maturation, of the EMU at Lancaster aviation program,” said Mary Jensen, vice president for enrollment and strategic growth. “The generosity of spirit with which he has shared his knowledge and insight is a gift to all of us, but especially to the next generation of aviators who will benefit from his expertise and guidance.”

Sibole is among 56 awardees to date this year. Since its origination in 2003, only 7,139 aviators have received the award since its origination in 2003. “That’s out of hundreds of thousands of pilots,” according to former colleague Elbert M. Bush.

Bush, who authorized the hiring of Sibole for several critical positions within the FAA, said that the award honors not just 50 years as an aviator, but 50 years devotion to the highest level of professionalism. 

“Fifty years of safe flight operations in the National Airspace System as a military aviator, commercial pilot, flight instructor, pilot examiner, and FAA inspector is a testament to John’s commitment and dedication to the art and science of flying,” he said. “Imagine the number of individuals John has interacted with over that span of time. Imagine the influence when it comes to aviation safety. During this journey, John has been a teacher, trainer, therapist, counselor, consultant, coach, and in those roles, he’s also passed on safe flight operations, compliance, and safety standards and best practices to hundreds of fellow aviators.” 

Highlights from John Sibole’s nearly 55-year career in aviation. Top row, from left: His U.S. Air Force commissioning ceremony in 1972, with mother Betty (left) and wife Cindy pinning second lieutenant bars. 1975, on active duty, pictured in front of an F-106 Delta Dart. 1978, with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, flying UH-1 “Huey” helicopters. Lower row, from left: Later in 1978, Sibole was a research engineer with Lycoming Engines in Williamsport, Pa. From 1980-2010, he was a pilot for U.S. Airways. In 2011, after retirement from the airlines, Sibole began serving as program manager for the FAA Safety Team, promoting aviation safety through outreach and education. He joined EMU Lancaster as director of aviation in September 2019. (Courtesy photos)

Traditionally, a representative of the FAA attends each awards ceremony. Sibole was honored by the presence of three: Bush and two former colleagues, Gary Martin and Eric Manchon, representing his former assignments at the Harrisburg (Pa.) and Baltimore (Md.) Flight Standards district offices. 

Additionally, three other longtime friends – pilots Joe Shugart, Dave Gurkin and Al Groft – provided “roasts and toasts” prior to the formal presentation of the award. 

Graduates of EMU at Lancaster’s aviation program earn a bachelor’s degree in leadership and organizational management degree, as well as several FAA credentials. Students split their time between on-site classes at EMU at Lancaster and flight training at Aero-Tech-Services, Inc, in Lititz.

The program has been praised by students for its faculty of experienced aviators and professionals in the industry, as well as for its unique blend of practice and classroom learning. Students are nurtured as leaders, positioned for technical excellence, and prepared for many possible professions with the growing aviation industry, Sibole said. 

Sibole was working as an inspector for the FAA when he accepted the position with EMU at Lancaster.

“I was very happy in my work at the FAA, but began to sense a calling to come to EMU full-time,” he said. “My vision is that this program will produce graduates with the best technical foundation, the potential for leadership, and a framework in which to continue to form godly values.”

Director of Aviation John Sibole with EMU’s first aviation graduates at Commencement on Friday, May 13, 2022. From left: Noelle Yorgey, Ivy Kreiser, Cienna Stover. (Photo by Christy Kauffman)