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Learning how to fly

March 31, 2018

KODIAK, Alaska (AP) — While Lower 48ers rely on highways to travel short distances, transportation on Kodiak Island often requires a bit more ingenuity. A visitor might be surprised to learn, for example, that from Larsen Bay or Akhiok, a trip to the grocery store involves a prop-plane flight over mountain ranges. Need to check in on relatives on Afognak Island? It’s either brave the seas by skiff or take to the air.

At Kodiak College’s ground flight school, Coast Guard pilot Kevin Riley instructs future aviators on one of the most in-demand skills in the region, and one that is in high demand worldwide. Aiding Riley is a brand new $30,000 flight simulator, purchased by the college through a state grant last year. The Advanced Aviation Training Device allows students to log actual flight time toward their private pilot’s certification. Not surprisingly, the course is one of the most popular at the college, according to Lorraine Stewart, an administrator in the school’s Career and Technical Education program.

“The students just want to learn how to fly,” she said.

On Friday, Riley demonstrated how the simulator works. Digital panels represent common flight instruments like an airspeed indicator and altimeter. A standard control system features hardware identical to that used on a real plane, including a pilot’s chair, rudder pedals, a control yoke, a propellor control and a throttle.

“We wanted to mimic what they’re going to be flying with,” Stewart said.

The data-intensive software requires two computer processors to operate.

Stewart said that while she is thrilled to have the resource available to students, she personally can’t bear to look at it.

“I get motion sickness,” she said.

Students will log 2.5 hours on the simulator this semester. On Friday, the software was undergoing an upgrade, and Riley taught a classroom lesson on weather. Students unfurled large maps, called air nautical charts, that help pilots locate radio frequencies for communication with control towers and other pilots. Riley discussed how to interpret what’s called a METAR - an industry-wide format for reporting weather information, made up of a string of letters, numbers and symbols, like: PANC240053Z 33003KT.

Students, already somewhat versed in METAR reading, explained that PANC is the symbol for the Anchorage airport. 240053Z means the 24th day of the month, at 12:53 a.m., “Zulu time,” or Greenwich Mean Time. And 33003KT? That means the wind is blowing from 330 degrees, or north-northwest, at 3 knots.

The METAR also indicates temperature, dewpoint, pressure visibility and cloud cover.

“You will get this the more you do it,” Riley told the class.

Later, students read a TAF, an aviation forecast that is delivered, once again, in a string of letters and symbols.

Riley pointed to the symbol SCT.

“What are the cloud decks doing here?” he asked.

“Scattered,” students responded.

One student asked about the difference between SCT and the similar SKC.

“I love seeing SKC,” Riley said wistfully. “It means ’sky clear.”

The course trains both undergraduates and Kodiak residents interested in picking up a new skill.

Jennifer Smith said her husband just bought a plane, a 1953 Pacer, and she wanted to be able to fly it, too.

“We’ll take it around anywhere on Kodiak Island, anywhere in Alaska,” she said.

Her friend, Richard Carstens, said he’s also interested in flying the new Pacer.

Molly McFarland, a graduate student, said she became interested in aviation during her summer job as a biologist.

“I fly a lot for my job,” she said. “It made me want to explore more.”

In a grant application to the state last year, Stewart wrote that a new simulator would be indispensable not only to the college, but to the community of Kodiak as a whole.

Kodiak “is a community that relies very heavily on aviation,” she wrote. The simulator would contribute to “workforce development opportunities for local aspiring pilots,” as well as “improving safety in the aviation community across the Kodiak Archipelago.”

The grant was awarded through the Alaska Technical Vocational Education Program, which provides funds to “technical and vocational training programs that align with workforce regional demands,” the program’s website states.

Walter Olazabal, a junior at Kodiak High School, said he’s taking the flight class to earn college credit through the college’s Jump Start program. He said he wants to become a commercial pilot.

“At first I wanted to do business, but my guidance counselor pointed out that there’s a huge demand for pilots,” he said. The course would grant him credit towards an undergraduate degree from the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ pilot school.

Olazabal said that he’d like to return to Kodiak with his certification.

“I’d like to fly people in and out of the villages,” he said.

Eustachios Stapleton, a freshman who works three part-time jobs, said he’s interested in aviation mechanics.

“The first time I was on a float plane, it was one of the best things I’ve ever experienced,” he said.

Riley, a native of North Carolina, has been a military service member since 2005, first in the Army, then the Coast Guard. He’s currently a helicopter pilot and instructor at Air Station Kodiak.

“This is my weekend thing,” he said.

While technology continues to improve in the industry, Riley said that many of the basics of ground flight school remain the same.

“The fundamentals haven’t changed. How does an airplane work? How does a motor work? How does an airport operate?”

Riley said the course sets the groundwork for future opportunities in the industry.

“I was that guy,” he said. “I took took ground school a long time ago at a community college. Since then, I’ve done things in aviation that I never thought would be possible.”

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Information from: Kodiak (Alaska) Daily Mirror, http://www.kodiakdailymirror.com

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