Lauren Bitikofer has a few rules for his students that wouldn’t normally make sense — unless you’re an aviation student.
“I won’t let a student drive my car, but I’ll let them solo fly a $300,000 airplane,” said Bitikofer, department chairman of Flight Science at LeTourneau University.
Bitkofer has been with the LeTourneau College of Aviation for 40 years. He first attended the university in 1971 and returned to teach aviation and technology in 1977, after working in Kansas.
In fact, seven of 13 instructors on staff are graduates of LeTourneau’s aviation program.
“People always asked how our students changed, and in all respects the students haven’t changed at all,” Bitikofer said.
He said his relationships with students is important, to the extent he’s even had some live with him and his wife when the students were in need. He said most LeTourneau professors work to help students professionally and personally. But Bitikofer is only part of the LeTourneau College of Aviation’s 60-year history.
Program of firsts
The university’s aviation program is unique. It’s the first college program in the state of Texas to have air traffic control simulation, and LeTourneau is the only four-year university in the state that offers a comprehensive aviation program.
Students see the benefits.
“Right now, I’m flying while working here over the summer,” said Jesse Tart, a LeTourneau junior.
Alumni have gone on to run airlines and work for the military and every major airline. Previous students include Executive Vice President Aaron Lorson of Dynamic Aviation and former Air Force Two pilot Tom Degrot.
“A lot of times, our alums will come back and talk to our aviation students,” university spokeswoman Janet Ragland said. But students get plenty of experienced aviators to learn from who are always on campus.
Byron Lichtenberg, a former space shuttle astronaut, Vietnam war veteran and president of Zero Gravity Foundation, teaches in the program. And Bob Parrot, a retired Methodist pastor to early astronauts, donated religious artifacts the astronauts took to the moon to the aviation program. He shows up to sit in the room with his contributions and speak with students.
“We teach our students how to fly and the theory behind it,” said Fred Ritchey, dean of the College of Aeronautical Science. He has been with LeTourneau for 31 years and has seen the program grow.
By the numbers
LeTourneau owns 15 airplanes, has 12 certificates, more than 200 college students enrolled and more than 60 high school students taking dual-credit aviation courses at the college.
Since 1991, aviation has been the fastest-growing program on campus. But it wasn’t always that way.
“Our founder owned an aviation business here at the airport, and in 1956, they started maintaining airplanes and modifying airplanes,” Ritchey said.
When the program started, the only certificate offered was for a two-year program in aircraft maintenance training.
Ernie Hansen, a former LeTourneau missionary pilot and mechanic, taught the early courses in airframe and engine repair. Within two years the airplane and engine maintenance courses gained certification. The school also hired its first official aviation professors: Dale Crane and Glen Ellis.
In 1961, LeTourneau Technical Institute became LeTourneau College, and regular college courses became available to aviation students. At the same time, Crane and Ellis persuaded the college to open a ground and flight school. The aviation department built most of its equipment during that time, because buying equipment was expensive.
Parking lot flights
Classes were taught in wooden barracks behind the campus during the morning, and in the afternoon, the class moved to the airport. Pilots at LeTourneau would taxi their planes on Mobberly Avenue and High Street and fly them from the parking lot beside the LeTourneau Inc. manufacturing plant.
Nine years later, the aviation program offered a combined degree in which students could pursue a degree in Bible, missions, business administration, mechanical engineering or electrical engineering with an emphasis in aviation. Floyd Bishop became the first official aviation department chair in fall of 1975, which is when Ritchey entered the program.
LeTourneau College had expanded in the 1980s and was renamed LeTourneau University in 1989. During the 1980s, LeTourneau introduced its Aviation Technology Bachelor of Science degree, the program’s first four-year aviation degree.
Ritchey became the school’s first dean in 2000.
In 2006, LeTourneau University bought four Cessna 172 Skyhawk airplanes for the aviation department.
2009 was a busy year for the LeTourneau Aviation and Aeronautical science program. The LeTourneau University flight team won the Loening Trophy for having the most outstanding all-around collegiate aviation program in the nation. Also the Paul and Betty Abbott Aviation Center opened its doors.
The center at East Texas Regional Airport is one of LeTourneau University’s largest facilities. It’s named after Paul Abbott and his wife. He attended LeTourneau from 1968-71 and now owns Covington Aircraft Engines.
From 2010-13, LeTourneau aviation students were named regional champions in the National Intercollegiate Flying Competition.
In fall 2015, LeTourneau began a new drone program and opened a new facility in McKinney. The next January, LeTourneau University students at the McKinney facility held their first solo flights.
This spring, LeTourneau University aviation students placed first in the Southwest Region of the Professional Aviation Maintenance Association competition and are ranked seventh in the nation at the National Intercollegiate Flying Association competition.
James Galan, a senior focusing on mission aviation and aviation maintenance, was part of both teams.
“It was really eye-opening. We wouldn’t consider us the top students at LeTourneau, but our normal students are ahead of the curve,” Galan said.
The aviation program also landed LeTourneau on a list of four universities selected to take part in Cessna Aircraft’s Top Hawk program. As a recipient, the school has been loaned a Cessna Skyhawk 172 airplane worth $400,000.