Training To Keep Skies Friendly

July 28, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Kent Intermediate School District program is the only one of its kind in Michigan.

It’s also one of a handful of educational experiences anywhere that lets high school juniors and seniors get a taste of what higher education is all about.

The Kent Career Technical Center, part of the KISD system, will start its fourth year next month of offering a course in aviation mechanics.

The relatively new program will have some state-of-the-art classrooms and a new lab in the Michigan Military Air, Land and Sea Museum going up at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. In a little more than a year, KISD will have its own mechanics’ hangar near the museum’s restoration hangar.

But getting into a new building isn’t the only goal the technical center has for the aviation mechanics course. KISD officials plan to add an avionics component to the curriculum that would add another work force component to the state and fill a goal that the Michigan Economic Development Corp. has to advance careers in high-tech training.

Avionics would be a natural extension for the aviation mechanics program, as the current course was created to take advantage of the field’s work force situation.

“We did some research three years ago in terms of projected growth in the area and we found it’s an aging work force in the aviation and mechanics repair field. The estimate was that 25,000 jobs would become open annually,” said Bill Mieras, KISD director for career technical education.

Beginners earn about $15 an hour. But in three years, the average mechanic’s salary jumps to $50,000 per year.

Mieras said KISD owns three planes that students take apart and put back together. The school district buys older planes on the used market, which Mieras said was quite fascinating.

“We pick up these planes at pretty reasonable prices,” he said.

“The students learn all the operational components, from tearing the engine down, to the hydraulics, to the pneumatics, to the fabrication end of it in terms of the wings, and trouble-shooting.”

KISD offers the two-year program in partnership with Lansing Community College and that connection turns the mechanics course into an associate degree program.

After students complete the course here, many move on to Lansing to get certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. Lansing Community and Northwest Michigan College in Traverse City are two of a select few colleges that offer the necessary FAA certification.

Mieras said KISD had about 100 students enrolled in the program last year and about 90 are onboard for the upcoming school year, which starts on August 26.

KISD leases 15,000 square feet at the airport from the Kent County Aeronautics Board for the program. But the nonprofit museum organization holds an option on two lots at the airport and the program will move into a 12,000-square-foot building on one of the lots, a site that has been designed as Phase 1 of the construction project.

“Then there would a restoration hangar that the museum would own and that is directly attached to ours. Then the next lot over would be the actual museum,” said Mieras.

Bill Harrison, executive director of the Michigan Military Preservation Society, said Phase 1 of the project should finish by the fall of 2004 and Phase 2 should be done two years later.

“Now that the lease and sublease agreement are finalized,” said Harrison, “we can begin planning a groundbreaking and focus on fund raising and development for the museum building, which is part of Phase 2.”

The fund-raising effort is written into the society’s lease and it needs to raise $3.5 million by 2005. The group has already raised $2 million and that money will be used for the Phase 1 construction of two hangars and a public taxiway.

“Through a serious outreach campaign, we expect to meet the fund-raising goals for Phase 1 and Phase 2, as they are outlined in the lease agreement,” said Dan Pfeiffer, owner of several local auto dealerships and a preservation society board member.

“With the continued support of the Aeronautics Board, our veterans — men and women of the armed services — and our generous community trustees, greater Grand Rapids, will have yet another state-of-the-art, education-based museum to include among its many cultural destinations,” he added.

The aviation mechanics program just graduated its first class in June and most of those students are now moving into the realm of higher education. When they get their degrees, they should have a few options available to them for employment in the field.

“Airlines will hire them.

“The major airlines are always looking for trained mechanics. A lot of the fixed-based operators like we have at Ford, Rapid Air and Northern Air, will employ mechanics. Even the privates out on corporate row, like Alticor, have a number of planes and they hire, as well,” said Mieras.

“It really is a great opportunity for kids. Frankly, it’s the only such program in Michigan where high school-aged kids can get an intro into the whole field of aeronautics and aviation.”

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