Taking Wing: Pay the Man

** UND’s Piper Cadets were 10 years old and lacked
GPS, but I was able to take them on a few good
adventures, such as a circuit of Lake Michigan in
the summer of 2000.**

Jan. 21, 2000. 5:30 a.m. I huddle over the wheel of the tug, savoring the warmth of the dashboard heater though it adds to my early-morning stupor. I'm not sure when I fell asleep last night, but it had to be mere hours before the alarm jolted my head from its resting place on my calculus textbook. I fight the urge to nod off as I idle in front of a World War II-era Quonset hangar with "University of North Dakota" emblazoned above its massive doors, which are now slowly parting, revealing a dozen Piper Arrows and Seminoles in the fluorescent gloom. As the doors lurch to a halt, I put the tug in gear and gingerly maneuver the tow bar up to the first airplane. I take a deep breath and exit the cab, jumping to the frozen tarmac. The sudden shock of minus 30 degrees F wind chill nearly knocks the wind out of me and my eyes instantly tear up, leaving icy trails down my cheeks. I throw the capture strap around the Arrow's nose strut and winch the nosewheel onto the tow bar, and then hastily retreat to the shelter of the cab. I'm wide awake now. I put the tug into reverse and carefully extricate the plane from the hangar, and then accelerate across the dark ramp. My co-workers and I have more than 80 aircraft to tow from six large hangars.

An hour later, I'm parking the last of the Warriors on Charlie Ramp when my radio crackles. "SOF just called. Tie 'em all down." The wind is forecast to rise above 18 knots, pushing the wind chill lower still. The frozen tiedown ropes are impossible to knot with gloved hands, making the task ahead difficult and painful and requiring frequent breaks to massage sensation back into nearly frostbitten fingers. "What the hell am I doing out here?" I wonder aloud. It's a rhetorical question; I know exactly why I'm out here. I have a dream of becoming a professional pilot, I'm at UND to pursue it, and this goal does not come cheaply. The previous week I visited the dreary financial aid office to sign yet another round of student loan promissory notes. I dreaded the thought of paying off such heady sums on new-pilot ­wages and was determined to borrow as little as possible, even if that meant working early hours on UND's frozen flight line.

Already self-conscious about my status as a transfer student, I was acutely aware that not everyone at UND faced such financial considerations. I came from a large, fairly poor family; my parents couldn't even afford to co-sign my loans. Many of my fellow aviation students, on the other hand, came from well-heeled families who were paying for their tuition and everything else. My battered 1981 Ford Escort looked painfully out of place in the airport parking lot, surrounded by new import coupes and SUVs. I bought cheap clothes and wore them until they were rags. I instinctively gravitated toward non­aviation students, most of whom were North Dakota kids of similar backgrounds to my own. In doing so I unwittingly missed out on what is arguably UND's most valuable feature: Its size and prominence in aviation make it ideal for ­networking with pilots who end up in every corner of the industry.

I saved money wherever I could. Early on I discovered the virtues of the Piper Cadet, essentially a stripped-down training version of the Warrior. UND had several left over from its pre-Warrior days and quietly offered them at a $20 per hour discount; they sat forlornly along the back fence because they were "old" (10 years!) and "bare-bones" (no GPS!). I enjoyed the challenge of navigating the old-fashioned way — and still do — so I flew them whenever possible. One semester, I was the only person to fly my favorite Cadet. Alas, the Cadets were eventually disposed of to make way for newer Warriors with Garmin GNS 430s; a few years later UND sold these nearly new Warriors to convert their primary fleet to Garmin G1000-equipped Cessna 172s.

I worked hard to finish my flight courses on time and under budget, passing all my stage checks on first try and thus avoiding costly retraining. The punishing schedule that I wrote about in last month's Taking Wing, though it resulted in getting burned out and taking a semester off for the TWA internship, ultimately served its purpose: to get my CFI ticket as soon as possible and start earning money instead of hemorrhaging it. Indeed, when I finished the summer of 2001 with 400 hours of dual instruction given and a job offer to instruct at UND during my senior year, the dream seemed to be right back on track. And then a few weeks into the fall semester, I watched the twin towers fall on a muted TV in Odegard Hall, surrounded by horrified, silent flight students. The mood on campus changed instantly. The three-day grounding and subsequent flight restrictions hampered training activity, and it never really recovered while I was there. Several friends quit flying shortly thereafter. The flight instructor ranks swelled as newly furloughed regional pilots returned to Grand Forks.

I was initially assigned several multiengine students, but they were removed from my schedule when the chief pilot realized that I had earned my multiengine instructor certificate outside of UND. "We're concerned about the quality of our multiengine instruction," he explained, suggesting that I could still instruct in twins if I took UND's MEI course for an additional $6,000. I declined the offer and instead shepherded several CFI-I students through their course on time and with a 100 percent stage check pass rate. In return I was reprimanded twice for charging my students "less than average" preflight and post-flight instruction time. It was the last straw. The boredom of Grand Forks, the long winters, the structural rigidity of UND's flight program — all these things I could happily withstand in pursuit of the dream. About to graduate $70,000 in debt, though, I couldn't bear to charge my students a penny more than their training required. The day that I finished my last final exam, I packed my car and drove straight through to California, vowing to never return.

Twelve years later, time has matured me and softened my attitudes toward my alma mater. In retrospect, the structure I found so constricting was necessary for a large school with many inexperi­enced students, and was in fact good preparation for the airlines, where it is very much "our way or the highway." The flight training was expensive, but the rates really weren't out of line with what any FBO would charge for brand-new, well-equipped aircraft, advanced simulators and clean, modern facilities. Really, weren't these the things that attracted me to UND in the first place? Most students and their parents demand them; smaller schools have found it necessary to upgrade their equipment and facilities to compete. In any case the training was uniformly excellent, if a bit short on practical experience. Looking back, even Grand Forks doesn't seem all that bad. I fly with fellow UND grads on a regular basis, and we find ourselves reminiscing about those cold, dark, brutally windy winters and all the ways we fought off cabin fever among good friends.

Nine years after leaving, I broke my vow and visited Grand Forks while on the return leg of a motorcycle trip to Alaska and back. It was July, and the pretty campus was abloom; Odegard Hall gleamed in the warm sunlight. But out at the airport, it was strangely quiet for a fine summer day. Training activity at UND, like every other flight program in the country, had significantly decreased as fewer would-be pilots found the dream to be worth the steadily increasing price. A major portion of UND Aerospace's current business is contract training of foreign students. Looking out over Charlie Ramp and its neat rows of Cessnas, I became unexpectedly nostalgic for a time and place I never properly appreciated at the time. I turned away, remounted my old BMW, and left my alma mater behind once more. Just as I turned off Airport Drive, a green-and-white 172 departed from Runway 17L and banked eastward, its shadow flashing over me and across the softly rustling wheat fields beyond. I smiled to myself, knowing that the dream still lives on for some, and accelerated toward my home beyond North Dakota's improbably wide horizon.

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Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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