Earlier this year, the Chicago Rockford International Airport celebrated the opening of two hangars big enough to maintain the largest aircraft ever built. At the same time, a program expanded to teach students how to keep these planes flying.
Rock Valley College is a two-year institution that serves students across Winnebago, Boone and surrounding counties. Like many community colleges, it has degree programs in a variety of technical fields, but one of their more unique offerings is aircraft maintenance.
The two-year program was set up in 1968, when Hertzog Aviation -- now Emory Air -- had trouble finding qualified aircraft mechanics. Program Chair Mark Adolphson says it initially took in about 40 students per year, training them on a variety of topics.
“Could be maybe the avionics, the electrical components and computers on the aircraft. Could possibly be non-destructive testing of aircraft components, and advanced composites," he said.
As befits the flexibility of a community college, students take classes in separate, five-hour shifts, with a maximum of about 25 people.
“For most of our classes, we probably lecture for about an hour every day, and the rest of the four hours would be out here in the shop doing hands-on type of work.”
And he means that literally.
“We have our own aircraft here that we work on," he says. "These are all owned by Rock Valley College. They’re all old, but they serve the purpose for education very well.”
Students have the chance to tinker with propeller planes and small helicopters. Common assignments include taking apart engines and wings. They also have machine shops to fabricate parts, paint them, and diagnose any defects. Much of the equipment and aircraft is donated from aerospace companies or wealthy aviation enthusiasts.
“We had a machine donated by the Woodward company many years ago, a magna-flux machine, and that is a means to detect for cracks in steel or ferrous metal parts by magnetism.”
However, there’s been a shift in materials with advances in aviation.
“Today, most aircraft are made out of stamped aluminum pieces; so, now, riveting is more important than welding," Adolphson explains. "And all that will be replaced by composites as the industry advances.”
Reflecting this shift, the College has scaled back on welding instruction.
All students get the same basic curriculum, but they each have their favorite tasks. For Seth Claus, it’s working with sheet metal.
“Just being able to take some flat stock metal and turn it into something that’s really precise and a perfect fit for the plane" he says.
His classmate, Justin Haynes, agrees but also likes working with individual parts.
“We’ve also hand-built little ailerons from complete scratch," he says. "We’ve taken fuel bladders out from wings and a whole bunch of other stuff. It’s really fun.”
Claus plans to work for SkyWest at O’Hare airport, while Haynes is considering a four-year degree focusing on helicopters and avionics. But a fair amount of graduates remain in the Rockford area.
In 2015, the program moved to a new facility at Chicago-Rockford International Airport, increasing their student body to 160. Adolphson says it’s next to several aerospace facilities, including a new hangar capable of servicing the world’s largest passenger jets.
“AAR is right across the street. On this airport, we have Emory Air, UPS down there, and some other smaller shops, and all of those places have Rock Valley graduates currently working for them.”
The new AAR facility was a major impetus behind Rock Valley College’s relocation. Manager Wayne Jamroz says they had always envisioned graduates as part of their worker pipeline.
“We’re in the process right now of interviewing alumni from there as well as some of the more recent graduates to bring them for our next project," he says.
AAR’s facility is already working with United Airlines and Air Mexico, and they’re in negotiations with other potential customers. They hope to create at least 500 local jobs.
Even with the many aviation opportunities, Adolphson says RVC graduates can apply their skills to a wide variety of fields.
“We have people working with the alternative energy people, working on wind farms, we have a recent graduate working for Otis Elevator, repairing elevators in high-rise buildings. Our graduates have gone on to work for amusement parks.”
As for prospective students, Adolphson recommends a varied curriculum.
“We recommend certainly all the sciences that you can possibly take. Math, physics, that kind of thing, and even English courses, because in this business you have to be able to write and explain what’s wrong with an aircraft, and do so in a manner that somebody else will read it and totally understand."
No matter the field, Adolphson says his program aims to give students the skills to succeed.
Note: Rock Valley College is an underwriter of WNIJ