Lake Area Technical Institute Thriving!

by Jim Hanson

SIDEBAR: The irony of it all! At a time when pilots are in short supply, avionics technicians are in short supply, and mechanics are in short supply, many university programs are shutting down. Lake Area Technical Institute (LATI), located at Watertown, South Dakota, has elected not to participate in the shutdown. Instead, they are thriving!

It’s a small school, but in view of its success, it should borrow a term from the corporate world—it is right-sized. One of the secrets of its success just might be the small-school personalized learning environment that students enjoy. Part of the success might be its location… the school serves the surrounding area (though it does take in students from neighboring states!)

Students in Watertown are serious about their training mission. Success might also be attributed to aviation department head, Greg Klein.

When Greg heard that a group of Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin pilots were getting together in Albert Lea, Minnesota for a “Soaring Regatta,” he contacted me and asked if I would mind if he brought the Schweizer 2-37 over for free rides for the soaring pilots. MIND? I jumped at the chance! In addition to being a glider pilot, Greg was out to promote his school.

Rather than wait for business to come to Watertown, Greg aggressively goes looking for it. By the time he gave rides to the glider pilots and talked to the onlookers, everyone in the surrounding soaring community knew about Lake Area Technical Institute, all about their program, and knew that Greg literally was a “go-getter.”

LATI’s two-year Aviation Maintenance Technician program started in 1965. The first year focuses on FAA general aviation and airframe maintenance subjects. At the end of the first year, students are able to test for their airframe certificates, and many students go out on summer internships. The second year is dedicated to powerplant certification.

LATI offers flight training as either an elective in the aviation maintenance training, or as an integral part of the recently established AG-Aviation program. In Ag-Aviation, students are offered the opportunity to take important agronomy, chemical handling, and regulatory coursework in addition to flight training leading to Aerial Application Certification.

The uniqueness of the Ag-Aviation program is that it is one of very few in the country that enables the student to take the agriculture courses and flight training in one location. Thinking about it, why would anyone do it any other way?

Greg explained how the flight training portion of the program works:

“We don’t know how many A&P schools in the country have gliders in their maintenance and flight training, but ours are solidly embedded in important roles. When a student learns to fly here, they start out with 10 hours of dual time in the Citabria and then move on to 10 more hours of motor glider dual training. From that point they move on to the Cessna 172 to complete their solo, cross-country, and night flying requirements. It ends up being a rich blend of tail-dragger, soaring, and 172 experience from which we intend to make better pilots.

“The students make up the maintenance crew, under the direction of FAA Inspection Authorization certified instructors. They accomplish the annuals, 100-hour inspections, oil changes, and unscheduled maintenance. Both the flight training students and maintenance students, most being one and the same, are in a win-win training environment that sends better pilots and better aircraft maintenance technicians out into the world of work.”

The Aircraft

The aircraft that make up the training fleet are good examples of Midwest resourcefulness.

A former Air Force T-41 aircraft was declared surplus. Located at Travis AFB in California, it was in serious disrepair – a candidate for scrapping. LATI is an eligible receiver for federal surplus property, and upon application, the school was awarded the aircraft. LATI hauled it back on a trailer for restoration.

Greg gives credit to the students: “An enthusiastic effort by the A&P classes of 2010, 2011, and 2012 resurrected it into an awesome looking, great flying civil-certified airplane. If you look up the specs for a T-41C, you’ll find that the 210 hp fuel-injected engine, fixed-pitch prop, and light-weight makes it into a mini 182.”

I asked Greg, “Why gliders?” He responded, “Gliders are an excellent teacher of airmanship. They require coordination of the flight controls. They teach energy management. With an airplane, you can power through different flight conditions… with a glider, you have to manage the aircraft. Gliders also teach planning… every landing is an accuracy landing. Aero-tows teach formation flying… students learn to think not only about their own aircraft, but the other aircraft.”

“Because of their low drag, gliders fly more like jets than power planes fly like jets. No wonder that the East Bloc countries start their military pilots in gliders, as does the U.S. Air Force.

“With impeccable timing, an owner of a project Schweizer SGS 2-22 approached us to see if we would be interested in resurrecting his aircraft as a school project. It took about 3 years, but the students and staff adopted it, restoring it with great pride. The idea of a glider, restored at the school, being towed up by a tow plane restored there as well, became reality in June of 2013.”

Since the program had a tow plane and a glider, and the ability to teach in them, other options presented themselves. Klein elaborates: “We feel pretty fortunate as an A&P school to have flyable aircraft in addition to the standard staple of ground maintenance trainers. The Aeromot AMT-200S motor glider was acquired from an Army unit assigned to Holloman AFB, NM. The Schweizer SGM 2-37 motor glider came from the Air Force Academy, and the Beech Sundowner came here from a school district in Roanoke, Va. The American Champion 7ECA is a 2007 model that we acquired upon completion of an ethanol-based aviation fuel research project that we worked on with South Dakota State University.”

WOW! That’s quite a fleet, and all built up by the students and faculty!

Looking Forward To A Bright Future…
Honors, Recognition, Research & NASA Grant

The aviation department, like the rest of Lake Area Tech, takes great pride in having a culture of caring integrity, and professionalism. This chemistry results in many significant recognitions and achievements. The Chronicle of Higher Education has labeled LATI as one of the best colleges in the nation to work for, six years in a row. It proudly and humbly received the distinguished designation as one of the Top Five Two-Year Colleges in the country by the Aspen Institute in 2011 and was again named one of the top four in 2013, and was recently selected as one of the top 10 competing for #1 for 2015.

Specifically for the aviation department, the latest big news has been the recent award of a $500,000 NASA grant to fund scholarships promoting Science, Technology, Education, and Math (STEM) in aviation education. Activities within that grant will be drone construction and operation, pilot training, and NASA Space Center internships. Recruiting efforts will emphasize minorities and women.

I asked Greg about the ethanol research project. He explained: “Working with South Dakota State University as a partner, we were able to succeed in acquiring an FAA Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) (after an extensive research and flight test project) to run Aviation Grade Ethanol in a Cessna 180. It was actually certified to run on any mix of the ethanol fuel or 100LL, thereby eliminating the concern of being limited to burning either one of them, exclusively.”

Like most Midwesterners, during all of our time together, Greg Klein never mentioned himself. He is a success story from LATI himself, having attended in 1977. He went on to a career as a maintenance technician in the United States Air Force, working on fighters and training aircraft. After retirement, he became an instructor at LATI in 1995. He has been a pilot since 1981, and a glider pilot since 2003. He holds multi-engine and instrument ratings in airplanes in addition to his glider pilot certificate, and is an FAA glider flight instructor.

On the maintenance side, Greg holds an FAA Inspection Authorization Certificate, and is an FAA Designated Mechanic Examiner. He has been honored with the Women In Aircraft Maintenance Teacher of the Year Award in 2008, and in 2013, the FAA Rapid City Flight Standards District Office selected him as their General Aviation Maintenance Technician of the Year.

Greg Klein is living the good life in South Dakota, near the area where he grew up: “Aviation is all I’ve ever wanted to do since I was a youngster,” he says. His wife, Ginny, his three grown children, and his seven grandchildren, would agree. When not working, teaching, and flying, Greg enjoys flying model airplanes, especially gliders thrown off the slopes overlooking the Missouri River.

There is an old saying often quoted by astronaut Jim Lovell: “There are those who make things happen, some that watch things happen, and those who wonder what happened. To be successful, you need to make things happen!” Lake Area Technical Institute and people like Greg Klein are just what general aviation needs today – people who don’t wait for students to come to them… they make the extra effort to go find the right students, and to find the resources to make things happen.

Do You Know Someone Who Would Like To Attend Lake Area Technical Institute?

Have them call Greg Klein at 605-882-6311 or view their website: http://www.lakeareatech.edu/academics/programs/aviation/. Be sure to click on the glider link on the right side to see what motor gliding is all about.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jim Hanson is the long-time operator of the Albert Lea, Minnesota airport. He has flown 314 unique types of aircraft in his 51-year flying career, and is a rated flight instructor in airplanes, gliders, instruments, and multi-engine airplanes. Gliders fly in thermals, rising columns of warm air. There are those that say there is a perpetual thermal over the Albert Lea airport whenever Jim is around. Jim can be reached at 507-373-0608 or jimhanson@deskmedia.com, when he is not flying.

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