Taking Wing: Schooled in North Dakota

It’s almost 8 a.m., but darkness still clings to the edges of the frozen prairie. The sun has risen somewhere above the impassive overcast, but here the only herald of morning’s coming is black sky fading to battleship gray. The dim light reveals a bleak landscape, flat and nearly treeless. The wind whips and howls relentlessly, carving snow drifts into fantastic shapes. Heavily bundled figures trudge across an icy ramp to neat rows of identical green-and-white airplanes. Preflight inspections are eye-raisingly brief. The temperature is -22 degrees Fahrenheit; the wind chill colder still. Exposed skin freezes almost instantly. This is North Dakota in February. It is the least likely place on earth to host a busy flight school, let alone one of the largest and most recognized aviation colleges in the world.

I first visited the University of North Dakota in June; the leafy, well-manicured campus was in full bloom. The sleek aviation complex gleamed in the warm sunlight, its curved black windows reflecting puffy clouds in a bright blue sky. At the airport, neat rows of green-and-white Pipers covered the expansive ramps — almost 100 airplanes in all. T-shirt-clad students inspected their assigned aircraft with unhurried care, enjoying the afternoon breeze. Every minute or two, a Warrior lifted off one of the parallel runways, banking over softly rustling wheat fields toward an improbably wide horizon. It seemed the most natural place in the world for a busy collegiate flight program.

Truth be told, I chose a flight school about as breezily as I had decided to pursue an aviation career in the first place. The field required a four-year degree as well as certificates and flight hours — so why not combine the two, I thought, and if a renowned aviation college was a few hours up the road, all the better. The campus and airplanes looked great, pilots I knew spoke of UND quite highly, and Grand Forks was just far enough away from home to escape parental oversight but close enough for the occasional laundry-and-homecooked-meal run. And so a few scant months after that first visit, I was enrolled at UND Aerospace for the fall 1999 semester.

Looking back across the distance of 15 tumultuous years, it seems incredible to recall the bursting, confident energy on the aviation campus at the time. The airline bankruptcies and mass furloughs of the early '90s were long forgotten. The major airlines were hiring en masse, their pilots' pay ever-increasing. The regionals were expanding and were increasingly keen to hire UND instructors with less and less flight time. Rumors flew through the flight department. "Did you hear so-and-so got hired at Great Lakes? Only 650 hours ­­— flying the Beech 1900!" The biannual job fairs were packed. Students were motivated. On most days, flight slots were completely booked from 6 a.m. until 8 p.m., requiring scheduling lessons well ahead of time. Many students stayed on campus during summer to fly while the weather was good.

I began flying immediately. I had transferred in with private pilot credit, so I was able to dive straight into Avit 221, the pre-instrument course. The first half consisted of time-building VFR flights across the Dakotas and Minnesota. It was the same sort of flying I had been doing in the 16 months since earning my Private Pilot license, but I was thrilled to be doing it two or three times a week; at home, I could only afford a few hours a month. This was my first time flying Piper aircraft. Within the first week, I had a bone-crushing night landing in Fargo that familiarized me with the PA-28’s high sink rate at low speed, but after that, I found it to be a delightfully docile, sweet-handling airplane. All of UND’s Warriors were fewer than 2 years old with leather interiors and King digital IFR panels with the latest approach-certified KLN-89B GPS. Most still had that intoxicating new-airplane smell. The newest airplane I had flown before UND was built in 1977.

I had some trouble adjusting to Part 141 training and UND's rather structured way of doing things. Lesson plans were explicit and had to be followed exactly. The idea of pleasure flying was foreign; it was impossible to rent an airplane for personal use, and passengers were forbidden. Each fleet had airline-style manuals, flow patterns, memory items and checklists. The weather minimums were rather conservative, and each flight had to be approved by the supervisor of flight, a sort of airline-style dispatcher; the practical effect was that go/no-go decisions were essentially made for you. After the freedom of Part 61 training, I chafed under so much regimentation but at least understood its purpose in training future airline pilots. What irked me worse was the unfortunate attitude that UND's methods were the only right way to train — all other ways were wrong and all other training institutions were inferior. Not everyone felt this way, of course, but a certain portion of the faculty, instructors and students clearly bought into the "Harvard of the Skies" hype. My previous training, rather than being an advantage, was regarded by some as suspect. My first few stage checks began with the instructor looking through my records, remarking on my Part 61 history and proceeding to ask very basic private pilot questions. At least I had college credit for my PPL; several friends who didn't were required to take a test course that repeated much of their primary training.

As autumn faded and the legendary North Dakota winter loomed, Avit 221 took me out of the airplane and into Ryan Hall’s claustrophobic Frasca 142 simulators for basic instrument training. I was surprised to find that I enjoyed it immensely. The highly technical nature of IFR flight appealed to my inner nerd, and the regimentation I had found so constricting made more sense in this context. At the same time, I discovered there is also a certain art to instrument flying; few things in aviation are more satisfying than a partial-panel nonprecision approach flown skillfully. After winter break, I moved on to Avit 222 and started practicing instrument maneuvers and approaches in the actual airplane. I covered a good portion of the Dakotas and Minnesota in the process, but I’ll be damned if I saw anything other than dancing needles and the inside of my foggles! Instructor biases aside, the stage checks went well.

Mainly because I was so keenly aware of how much it cost, I was determined to finish my degree as quickly as possible. I had transferred in with a year’s worth of credits and reckoned I could knock the rest out in two and a half years. Almost every moment not spent in class was budgeted for studying, flying or my job on UND’s flight line. Like many of my classmates, I stayed on campus for the summer of 2000, completing the commercial single-engine and multiengine courses along with a number of non-aviation classes. I flew almost every day. The Piper Arrow seemed impossibly powerful and sleek with its 200 horsepower and retractable gear. Then I got my hands on the mighty Seminole and had my share of “Walter Mitty, airline pilot” moments with dual throttles thrumming in my palm. At the end of the summer, I had 25 hours left for the commercial course requirements, so I convinced the supervisor of flight to let me take one of UND’s older Piper Cadets on a multiday circuit of Lake Michigan via Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Chicago.

Having been hard at it for 12 months, I pressed on in the fall semester and took on a 21-credit load, worked the flight line nearly full time and dived into the challenging CFI course. Predictably, I got severely burnt out halfway through the semester. I started skipping classes, blowing off friends, falling asleep over studies and cutting corners at work. Most alarmingly, I didn’t even want to fly. I was tired, lonely and depressed. I finally realized that my carefully considered schedule would be all for naught if I graduated in two and a half years but ended up hating my chosen profession. If I was in it for the long haul, I needed a break.

On New Year’s Day 2001, I drove from Grand Forks to St. Louis to begin a flight operations internship with Trans World Airlines. Despite the turmoil of the merger with American Airlines, the five-month internship was exactly the invigorating experience I needed (see Taking Wing, December 2013). I returned to UND the next fall refreshed and ready to resume my single-minded pursuit of a career aloft. Little did I know how drastically the industry was about to change and with it the career of every student at UND Aerospace. The tumultuous years to come would lay waste to my best-laid plans, but they would also send me on the greatest adventures of my life.

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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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