Aviation-loving teens fill first class

Trial flight for Clark County Skills Center program shows signs of success

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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A group of teenagers ran across the grass behind a hangar at Pearson Field on Thursday. They laughed and chased the paper airplanes they'd tossed into the blue sky.

But unlike other kids who may have been frolicking with toy flying machines on this summer day, this group was on break from an aviation class.

When they returned to their desks inside the airport's educational hangar, their teacher greeted them with: "The reciprocating engine -- what does it do?"

"It creates thrust," one of the teens piped up.

"It spins the propeller," another said.

They were both right and proved that they already had learned some basic lessons of flight this summer.

The 21 teens gathered in the hangar are enrolled in the first aviation class offered by the Clark County Skills Center in conjunction with the Pearson Air Museum. Judging by the waiting list to get into this three-week class, it seems almost guaranteed that the skills center will offer a full-scale, two-year program in the not-too-distant future.

This summer was intended as a test balloon to gauge student interest, said Tom Whittingham, who teaches a pre-engineering program at the skills center and serves as the center's representative during the aviation program.

Not sparing students

The program is taught by Wil Timmons, an ex-Navy man who's traveled the world fixing warplanes. He also spent many years maintaining Horizon Air jets at Portland International Airport.

In the classroom, he explained the mechanics of variable-pitch propellers, in which the angle of the propeller blades is adjusted for various flight scenarios. Timmons also talked about cooling methods for airplane engines and prepared students for next week's lessons on gas-turbine engines, aka jet engines.

He is covering the metals used in airplanes, hydraulic systems, the physics of flight and many other topics in about 80 hours of classroom and field trip time.

"This course is like drinking water through a firehose for these kids," he later said with a grin. "I don't spare the students."

The students seemed genuinely interested and appeared to follow Timmons' drawings of engine interiors. There were no prerequisites for this class, Whittingham said. Students just needed to sign up. The class filled up quickly, he said.

Timmons, who wasn't involved in the registration process, didn't know the students hadn't been hand-picked for his class based on their math or science grades.

"If they just signed up, I'm really hopeful for the future," the veteran said in his gravelly voice. "There are a number of them that are definitely going into the industry."

And that matches the long-term goals of this program.

Industry needs

The skills center, which offers vocational training to high school students from all over Clark County, by 2015 plans to open a new building on its campus on Northeast 28th Street. That new building will likely house a full 1,080-hour aviation program, said Dennis Kampe, executive director of the center.

Such a program would match the offerings now in place -- or in development -- elsewhere around the state. These programs are sprouting up in response to labor demands from Boeing and its suppliers, said Dennis Wallace, the program supervisor for skilled and technical sciences at the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Currently, only the Yakima Valley Tech Skills Center has such a program, called the aerospace assembler program, Wallace said.

The Pierce County and Puget Sound skills centers are starting similar programs this fall, he said. Centers in Mount Vernon, Everett and Spokane will follow soon.

The programs prepare students for entry-level jobs at Boeing and its more than 700 supplier companies in the state, Wallace said. This means a student could graduate from high school and start in a career right away. Line workers at Boeing start at about $12 to $15 per hour, Wallace said. But there is room for advancement, by getting additional certificates from community colleges -- and Boeing and some of its bigger suppliers often pay the tuition, Wallace said.

"These kids can start working and still get an education," he said.

The lessons taught in the skills center courses also apply to seemingly unrelated fields, such as manufacturing surf boards, Wallace said.

And they apply to fields that are a little closer to the sky than surfboards are, said Timmons, the instructor.

Being an aviation mechanic means a person has a lot of the skills needed to build and maintain the wind turbines dotting the ridges of eastern Washington and Oregon.

And aviation doesn't have to mean putting people in the sky. On Monday, Insitu, a defense contractor that builds unmanned aircraft 70 miles east of Vancouver, will visit the class at Pearson to demonstrate its machines. Insitu is looking for qualified workers, Timmons said.

In preparation for the sophisticated unmanned craft, the class spent some time Friday with people flying smaller versions, at the Fern Prairie Modelers field in Washougal. The model airplanes buzzing overhead follow the same basic principles as their big counterparts. During a sandwich break, men who were past retirement age gave the students tips about banking turns and avoiding a mid-air stall.

And all morning, the teens took turns flying the true-to-scale machines. They held remote controllers that were connected to a matching box held by one of the model club's trainers, much like the dual controls in a plane for pilot and co-pilot.

The trainers got the planes on and off the ground, but once they were safely in the air, the teens took over. Trainers let out short bursts of instruction during the five-minute flights.

"Right to level, left a little … that's good," trainer Skip Hatheway told Alex Ferdig, a 14-year-old from Evergreen High School.

When his turn was over, the teen walked away from the small runway with a big smile.

"That was easy compared to what I thought it was going to be," Ferdig said.

Spending time on the air museum's flight simulators as part of the course prepared him for steering the model, he said.

Ferdig wants to be a "mechanic of everything," he said. First, he's going to join the military. He'd been waffling between two branches in his planning. But after this aviation course, U.S. Navy recruiters needn't wait for him.

"I've narrowed it down to mechanic or pilot in the Air Force," Ferdig said.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com;http://twitter.com/col_schools.