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Westminster aviation program is on the rise

Westminster’s aviation program continues to rise after the Cessna Aircraft Company recognized it for its exemplary understanding of aviation and dedication toward the industry.  

The college was one of four schools accepted into the Top Hawk Program. Each school was awarded its own custom-branded Cessna 172 aircraft.

Kristi Weeks, sophomore aviation flight ops major, worked in tandem with John Schaefer, aviation department chair, to get into the Top Hawk Program.  

“Our Top Hawk, which is a Cessna 172, is equipped with a name and his own personality: ‘Monty,’” Weeks said.  “Monty stands for Montpelier, Vermont, which is where one of our former aviation students, Luke Hammer, was from.”

“Westminster is in a cool location—you can fly during the week and ski on the weekends. — Lincoln Taylor, junior and aviation flight ops major

Luke Hammer, Vermont native, sophomore passed away last November.  

“He was very near and dear to us, and this is our way of remembering him,” Weeks said. “It’s been an amazing experience to see everyone culminate around our fallen aviator.”

Doug May, vice president of Piston Aircraft, spoke highly of the chosen institutions, according to a Westminster press release.

“These universities are renowned for their innovative aviation programs and commitment to general aviation,” said May in the release. “They will be leveraging the world-leading flight trainer, the Cessna Skyhawk, to continue training the next generation of pilots.”

Westminster’s fleet includes a total of 15 aircrafts and three flight simulators.  

“Including Monty, we have four Cessna 172s, seven Piper Archers, three Piper Arrows and one Piper Seminole,” said John Schaefer, aviation department chair. “There are varying degrees of complexity as you go up the spectrum—from fixed gear, simple engine all the way to retractable gear, multi-engine.”

Even though Westminster has a vast array of aircrafts in its fleet, Gene Reincke, assistant chief instructor for simulation and testing, said that one of the more dynamic and important tools for teaching, is the flight simulator.  

“There are things you can do in a simulator that you can’t do in the air,” said Reinecke, who has worked with flight simulators for almost 30 years.  “We can set up a complex problem to handle, and when things go wrong, we can hit the freeze button and stop to address the issue. There’s also a time compression element that comes into play. We can cover 10 things in an hour on a simulator while we can only cover one or two in the air.”

Lincoln Taylor, junior aviation flight ops major, said he loves the resources available to him and the area of the country he gets to learn in.  

“[Simulators] are constantly in use,” said Taylor, who hadn’t been on a plane until his flight to attend Westminster. “Think of it as cheaper flying. You’re still flying a plane, but without gas. Westminster is in a cool location—you can fly during the week and ski on the weekends.”

Throughout the four years it takes to complete the aviation program, students not only get to learn about different types of aircrafts, but they also get the chance to teach, as well.

“In the first two years, students will get their private pilot, instrument pilot, commercial pilot, multi-engine pilot and their instructor license,” said Reinecke, assistant chief instructor for simulation and testing. “So then years three and four, while they finish up their campus requirements, they can be teaching and earning money.”

Reinecke said this process of learning under fellow Griffins and eventually becoming the teacher has created a family like atmosphere within the program. 

“These students learn the Westminster way of flying, and in turn, they can teach that brand of aviation to the new aviators,” Reinecke said.  

Kristi Weeks, membership coordinator and outreach chair of Salt Lake City’s chapter of Women in Aviation, said she understands the importance of cohesiveness and cooperation with the community.

“Westminster’s aviation program is one big family,” Weeks said. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if we didn’t work so well together.”

The economic meltdown of 2008 left many devastated when it came to job security and living wages, according to Reinecke, aviation instructor. He said regional airline pilots were only making around $20,000 annually. But now that the economy has improved, regional airlines are increasing wages to attract pilots.

“Nationwide, because of a number of factors, there is a shortage of pilots,” Reinecke said. “We are going to see a huge spike in new students as families make these calculations and see that it is worth the investment.”

Schaefer, retired Air Force pilot and long-time instructor, has been around for the ups and downs of the aviation industry.  Schaefer said one of the reasons he got into academics was to help people get where they want to go.

“The aviation industry turned around about three or four years ago, and now it’s on a serious upslope,” Schaefer said. “The timing is fantastic right now for new pilots.”

Westminster’s aviation program wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for the passionate staff and faculty involved, said Reinecke, instructor.

“We are heavily invested in student success,” Reinecke said. “[Westminster] has been willing to put the resources towards getting the students through quickly and safely.”

Some students have a problem waking up at the crack of dawn to get their day started, but Weeks, sophomore, said she is not one of those people.  

“The experience has been unforgettable,” Kristi Weeks said. “It’s amazing to wake up in the morning, be at the airport at 6:30, go up by 7:00, be down by 10, and then still have your whole day.”

Lincoln Taylor, junior, also said he enjoys the experience at Westminster and appreciates the opportunity he’s earned.  

“Day one you start flying, but to get to the solo flights you need 10 hours with an instructor,” Taylor said. “When your classroom is up in the air, you have a good time.”

A view from above Salt Lake City in Westminster's new plane

A view from above Salt Lake City in Westminster’s new plane “Monty.” The new Cessna 172 is equipped with all of the new-age avionics and displays. Photos by Christian Anderson

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