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Education a key component as Northland aviation takes flight

EDITOR'S NOTE: In part two of Murphy McGinnis Newspaper's Winds of Change series on aviation, reporter Pat Faherty looks at the education component of this growing Northland industry and the Duluth International Airport, a driving force in the No...

EDITOR'S NOTE: In part two of Murphy McGinnis Newspaper's Winds of Change series on aviation, reporter Pat Faherty looks at the education component of this growing Northland industry and the Duluth International Airport, a driving force in the Northland's economy.
Sean Sundquist spends his free evenings studying aviation management at Lake Superior College in Duluth. By day, he works full-time on the flight line at Cirrus Design, Duluth's growing airplane manufacturer.
His education could position the Culver resident to move into a supervisory role at Cirrus or elsewhere in the local aviation economy.
Sundquist personifies the mark that some community, academic and business leaders would like to see aviation hit. Ideally, aviation would continue to grow while support industries would develop around it, including education and training opportunities.
LSC is taking aim at that target, offering aviation programs, including professional pilot training, aviation management and emergency and firefighting rescue programs, said Mike Pflepsen, supervisory management instructor coordinator at LSC.
"The aviation management program is specifically designed for people currently working in the aviation industry or who have some aviation experience," he said. "Anybody in the aviation industry can qualify for the aviation management degree, but it's primarily focused on those who are FAA certified airframe and power plant mechanics, commonly called A&P."
The certification gives students a head start on an associate degree by counting aviation career credits. Students then take a selection of core management and general courses.
Sundquist, 34, meets those criteria. He was an aviation mechanic in the Air Force and is A&P certified. He said allowing for life credit was a key factor for him enrolling in the program. And having watched some others use the program as a career stepping stone provides extra motivation.
Pflepsen said there are at least two other Cirrus workers in the program and hundreds of certified aircraft mechanics in Duluth who could take advantage of it.
"All these courses are on evenings and Saturdays, so the whole program is structured and designed around the needs of working people," he said. "They can position themselves to move from a mechanic's role into a supervisor or manager's role."
He and Sundquist agreed that the management program brings together an interesting mix of students to develop skills that can be immediately applied to the job.
"I would have to say these people are looking to move up," Sundquist said. "I would be letting myself down if I didn't take advantage of it."
Pflepsen sees the aviation program as well positioned for success.
"The future of it is yet to come. We have an increased awareness of aviation careers in the area," he said. "We have significant employment in the area related to aviation, so this is an opportunity for people who are involved in aviation careers as aviation mechanics primarily, to get a college degree, to move into a management position, to really step up if that's what they want to do."
Fly with finesse
Another aviation education program is poised to take off for a different reason.
"Our mission is not to teach people how to fly, our mission is to teach people how to fly professionally. I teach people as if they want to do this for a career," said Julius Salinas, who runs the professional pilot program at LSC.
The program recently moved to the college from Ely and will soon be at Duluth International Airport. The college will be taking advantage of space renovated by Sinex Aviation, after the software development firm outgrew its airport location and moved to the Duluth Technology Village.
"The things that we incorporate into our training will make someone a safer pilot. It will make them a more organized, methodical individual. They'll learn how to fly the plane with finesse, and that's what we're trying to do -- we want to do this in a professional manner," Salinas said.
"We're going to be out there at the airport by fall semester for sure. Our classroom will be on the first floor, and the air traffic control tower is on the second floor," he said. "You've got people interested in this stuff and they will be right there in the thick of it. We can look out the windows and see the F-16s taking off and landing. We'll see Mesabi, American Eagle, Cirrus and Northwest Airlines, business jets and other aircraft coming in and out."
Students in the pilot program also take regular college course work. The program leads to FAA certification as a commercial pilot with an instrument rating.
"This means that legally they can be hired and paid as a pilot," he said. However, the next step is usually an entry-level job until they acquire more hours in the air. Some go onto four-year degree programs, earning money as flight instructors, a common way to build up hours in the air.
Salinas sees moving to the airport as a great recruiting tool for the college and an opportunity for students to get their foot in door in the local aviation industry through part-time jobs or internships.
While the pilot program is popular and growing, it hasn't caught on with female students, a trend Salinas would like to turn around.
"I think it would be good for the industry to have males and females interact," he said.
This summer, a younger group will get some aviation education. The Minnesota Department of Transportation's aeronautics department, and LSC are sponsoring an aviation camp for junior high students at Marshall School in Duluth.
"The purpose is to teach math and science skills through aviation and expose them to aviation career opportunities," said Janese Buzzell of MNDot, who designed the curriculum. The June camp will serve as prototype for future camps around the state. For information call 727-7266.
At the airport
Duluth International Airport is a powerful economic engine, one that is also a work in progress. Ray Klosowski, executive director of the Duluth Airport Authority, agreed there is always some ongoing work at the sprawling site.
A map of the facility in his office displays a five-year schedule of 18 projects valued at an estimated $48.5 million.
The airport's modern era dates back to 1989-90. Duluth's Cold War tenure as an Air Force base left it with an excellent runway and other improvements.
In 1981, after four years of rumors, the air base began shutting down. At its high point the base had a roster of about 1,200 military personnel and employed about 450 civilian workers.
"One day a $10 million payroll mounted in airplanes and flew to Michigan," recalled Congressman Jim Oberstar. "We lost $10 million in a single day."
The Air Force had also maintained the airport, a job which now fell to the city at a time when it was dealing with other economic woes.
Eventually Oberstar stepped in, some money started flowing and talks began to bring in the Northwest Airlines maintenance facility.
Currently the airport generates about $2.7 million a year in non-federal revenue and leverages millions more in federal matching funds for various improvements.
In addition to providing general and commercial aviation services, the airport serves as a regional development tool. It has also been home to the Air National Guard since 1948.
The 148th Fighter Wing has approximately 1,000 traditional, part-time guard members and 397 full-time employees. This places the unit in the list of top employers in the Duluth area. With payroll, supplies and services purchased locally, the unit contributes $56.3 million annually to the local economy.
The Guard can also claim a major project on Klosowski's map. A $10 million maintenance facility is scheduled to be completed this year. The Guard is also in line for an upgrade to its aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets.
Touring the airport shows just how diverse an area aviation has become. Cirrus, with a fleet of brand new planes parked out front, sits just off the runway. But just a short walk away, in a hangar from a by-gone era, volunteers are restoring a 1943 Catalina flying boat -- a workhorse aircraft from World War II.
The old plane is part of a growing collection of aviation artifacts preserved by the Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. Museum director Col. Thomas A. Wilk said they are slowly becoming known in the community.
And more aviation history might be on its way. The Minnesota Aviation hall of Fame could soon have an exhibit space in Duluth.
The U.S. Army's cold weather testing area is also located at the airport site. The Predator drones currently flying in the Mideast went through their chill factor paces in Duluth.
The airport is also home to the local air freight industry, but Klosowski doesn't see Duluth becoming an air cargo hub. The concept was explored by an economic summit group, but Duluth's location precludes easy ground access to major cargo customers.
A recent study, commissioned by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Task Force, named Duluth as one of the airports that could possibly be upgraded to a regional cargo facility. Klosowski, however, believes it's more likely Duluth will take on a larger passenger role -- possibly in air charters -- as a reliever facility for Minneapolis-St. Paul.
The Northwest Airlines maintenance facility dominates the airport landscape. The giant building can service up to three jets at once, and crews work around the clock.
Part 3 of the Winds of Change series on aviation will look at other aspects of the Duluth airport's part in aviation development, the role of Northwest Airlines, community airports in the Northland and how the industry is benefiting Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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