After a shutdown during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, UND Aerospace and its airport operations resumed in earnest that summer. Over the next year, UND’s flight training programs went on to accrue more flight hours than ever – smashing a 2013 record. UND archival image.
With 126,000 hours of flight across all training programs, UND sets new record in year of changes and challenges
From July 1 of last year to June 30, the University of North Dakota’s flight training programs kept an unprecedented pace, smashing a 2013 record for hours flown by students at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.
The 126,000 hours flown between 2020 and 2021 went well beyond the FY13’s 110,000 hours across plane, helicopter and unmanned aerial systems flight training. Airplane training alone comprised 121,000 hours of the FY21 total.
The milestone was reached amid circumstances never before experienced. After the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered UND Flight Operations from March through May in 2020, training resumed in earnest as students were determined to keep their college careers on track.
“This flying hour milestone is a culmination of the hard work of all of our students, instructors, maintainers, line staff, and others,” said Robert Kraus, dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. “Even more so, they have done it professionally and safely, even under pandemic restrictions.”
From shutdown to blazing pace
Despite new safety protocols and sometimes daily changes to operations, UND achieved a number that hadn’t previously been thought to be possible, according to Chief Flight Instructor Jeremy Roesler. Previous estimates, considering the size of UND’s fleet of nearly 100 aircraft and an average of 160 flight instructors on staff, put the cap at 120,000 hours for UND at its busiest.
“As we shut down from the middle of March until May 2020, all of that cumulative flight training still had to happen,” Roesler said. “And because of the airline industry slowdown, our flight instructors weren’t leaving for new employment. We then hired more instructors, which meant we were far more staffed than years previous.”
By the time UND Flight Operations resumed activities at the airport, under new health and safety precautions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, 245 flight instructors were on staff to help as many as 1,400 students get up to speed on flight lessons.
Also, as noted by Kraus, “The great weather we’ve had over the winter and spring contributed to Grand Forks International Airport achieving the top rank as the busiest airport in the country on several occasions.”
But it wasn’t solely a staffing boost or sunny days that set a blazing pace for UND Aerospace.
“It’s hard to single out any one department, because our organization is so intertwined,” said Dick Schultz, director of UND Flight Operations, when asked about the milestone. “From our records department, to dispatch, to the maintenance bay, if one thing is out of place, it messes up the whole system.
“Our collective experience, working seven days a week, morning to night, has taught us what we need to do to get the job done. We have a great staff out here, and everybody stood up to do their part.”
Brian Willis, director of aviation safety, said that from a safety culture standpoint, everyone in the UND Aerospace ecosystem was prepared for what came with resuming flight training last summer. Masks were required across the board and cockpits were sanitized between uses, among other measures to promote physical distancing when possible.
“As pilots, our students and instructors have learned to be very flexible,” Willis said. “They’re also very rule-oriented as a matter of course. So, between the checklists, manuals and flight procedures, COVID procedures fit right in. That allowed for the organization to come back and really get rolling.
“From our administration’s offices to students and instructors on the runway, safety is always the priority in how we make decisions.”
On the rebound
While conditions aligned perfectly for an unprecedentedly productive year at UND, the rest of the aviation world is now on the rebound, said Roesler. As pandemic recovery unfolds, airlines and other aviation fixtures are steadily reaching pre-COVID hiring rates.
“We’ve already had quite a number of instructors move on this year, and our graduates are going to remain in high demand as the industry addresses its pilot shortage,” Roesler said.
Kraus said that in recent meetings with airlines, many of which have established career pathway programs in partnership with UND Aerospace, nearly all are expecting significant hiring opportunities for “several years.”
“We continue to see rising interest in aviation as a career, and our increase in flight hours supports the increasing demand of pilots from all levels of the industry,” he added.
In order to get flight training back on schedule, UND Aerospace implemented new procedures to limit the spread of COVID-19, including mask requirements and increased sanitization for cockpits and other training areas. UND archival image.