Aviation students Logan Kemmerer and Devin Miller were doing a preflight check on one of two new tech-filled twin-engine Piper Seminoles at the Mankato Regional Airport.
“It’s pretty sweet,” Miller said. “It looks like fun,” added Kemmerer.
The two Minnesota State University sophomores were about to take their first flight this week in the planes, equipped with state-of-the-art technology that features fully coupled auto-pilots, flight directors and navigation and approach overlays.
But before taking off, the two checked over the plane with professor Tom Peterson looking on. As part of the preflight, Miller was designated to play the role of instructor and Kemmerer a student, a routine to help the two practice for being flight instructors at the airport after they finish their degrees.
Miller showed Kemmerer how to draw a small glass vial of fuel from the bottom of the tank. “Hold it up and look for any water or dirt particles,” he said.
They moved along the wings, Miller telling him to check the static electricity wires and flap hinges. They opened the fuel cap and took a long straw, pushing it to the bottom of the tank to double check on the fuel level. Then on to check the oil. “You take the dipstick and check it just like your car oil,” Miller instructed.
The oil level was just right at six. Kemmerer asked questions he already knew the answer to, playing the newbie student role. “What’s the most and least oil it can have?” Ten is the max, but it never is that high, Miller told him. “It can go down to two, but we don’t want it that low because we take good care of our planes.”
Inside the plane the students looked at the computer-generated screens that display the plane’s instruments.
Mike Andersen, director of safety and a FAA examiner at the airport, said the instrument displays, which replace individual instrument gauges, help the students get used to the types of instrument panels they’ll see in Northstar’s jet flight simulator and in real jets.
“There are pluses and minuses to them,” said Andersen, a retired Northwest pilot who’s been giving FAA exams for 35 years.
“People become much more reliant on them, so it’s important pilots keep their basic skills up.” If the computer-generated display malfunctions, there are basic backup instruments on board pilots need to use to get where they’re going and land safely, he said.
“But the plus side is it’s like having another pilot on board.”
Rob McGregor, senior manager of flight operations for Northstar, said the addition of the new planes, plus two more Piper Warriors coming in February, will help meet the needs of MSU’s growing aviation program.
MSU has the state’s only four-year bachelor’s degree program in aviation. Ironically, the program was almost axed because of state budget shortfalls in 2010. But thanks to lobbying by supporters of the Mankato program and after St. Cloud State decided to end its aviation program, MSU’s program was saved.
“We came back from the chopping block,” said Peterson, who has been teaching at MSU for eight years.
The program has grown about 60 percent in the past four years, to 174 students.
Peterson said every student who graduates and earns their required 1,000 hours of flight time will land a good job with one of the regional carriers that are the training ground for the big airlines. “Whatever airline they apply to, they’re going to get a job offer.”
The demand for pilots is huge and growing, thanks in part to the rule that requires commercial pilots to retire at age 65. During the next 20 years, it’s expected 100,000 more pilots will be needed.
Peterson said MSU has made its program “more rigorous and more relevant for the airlines.”
And he said not only has enrollment increased but also retention of students has increased. “We are more aggressive in getting flight training done and that impresses students. They’re accomplishing things and making progress and we keep them through graduation.”