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K-State flight program strong despite Sept. 11 attacks

When federal agencies started asking aviation programs about their security after the terrorist attacks, K-State's aviation department looked good

By Mark Berry



3 pilots walk from planes on runwaymechanic works on plane

John Runnells, left, freshman in airway science from the Bronx, N.Y.; instructor Hugh Irvin; and Ryan White, senior in airway science from Coffeyville, walk to the aviation building after a flight.



Brian Cain, junior in aviation maintenance from Miller, S.D., works on a single-engine airplane.

"We found ourselves in a fortunate situation," said Marlon Johnston, head of the aviation department at Kansas State University at Salina.

The reason is because the college had begun placing electronic door locks to important areas in the aviation building, such as the flight simulator and the airport access, in the summer of 2001. The main door to the aviation building also has an electronic lock that is activated after business hours.

Anyone who wants to walk through those doors needs a security card. Each security card has the student or staff member's personal identification. A central computer keeps track of everyone who enters those areas.

All 290 flight students are also required to wear name tags and pilot uniforms. Starting next fall, the school's 60 aviation maintenance students will wear standardized shirts.

"This gives us the ability to identify people who don't belong in the building," Johnston said. "We are visited by prospective students and families, industry partners and people from the community, and they all like to see what K-State is doing here in Salina. We don't want to do things that are going to hinder their access to these programs, but at the same time, we want to fulfill our responsibility for security."

Johnston said the uniforms and security features also give the aviation department an air of professionalism and an environment that students will see when they enter the workforce.

The aviation program has 40 airplanes for training, as well as two that are used to transport university faculty and staff. Flight students get the chance to accompany the university's professional pilots when they fly athletics coaches on recruiting trips, and administrators to meetings.

"We call it the transportation program, but it's also a flying laboratory," Johnston said. "The students get experience in flying in high-density traffic, high altitudes and the other things you do when you are supporting CEO-type people."

Students are usually juniors with 190 to 200 hours of flight experience when they become Federal Aviation Administration certified flight instructors. But it takes at least 1,000 hours of flight time to be competitive on the job market, Johnston said. That's why the aviation department hires about 45 students to become flight instructors after they receive their instructor's license.

"It's like being a graduate assistant. The instructors are still in school, but they earn a salary, the student pays for the rent on the aircraft and the instructors get quality time in the airplane," Johnston said.

Johnston expects a freshman class of 100 to 120 in the fall of 2002, which is the same as the record enrollment that the department enjoyed in 2001.

Hiring in the airline industry remained unaffected by the sluggish U.S. economy in recent years, Johnston said. But then came the attacks of Sept. 11, which scared customers away from the airways. Airlines could not afford to fly empty planes, so they cut staff.

"Since the attacks, seniors and recent graduates have faced challenges. As airlines laid off pilots, senior pilots were bumped down to fill entry level positions that our students would normally go into," Johnston said.

Airlines are projected to hire 6,000 pilots in 2002. That is lower than had been expected before the attacks, but Johnston said opportunities are growing for aviation graduates. Freight transportation by air has continued to be a big business and passenger airlines are starting to bring back old routes that they had cut after Sept. 11.

"Generally, it's a positive outlook. Our nation is geographically large. People and freight need to move within our nation, and it takes air carriage to do that. And it's easy to go from North America to Europe or South America by air. The industry will grow as we continue to develop the global economy," Johnston said.


Photos by Mark Berry.

Summer 2002