Maintenance Training for Unmanned Aircraft Systems

NCTC will offer training to become a UAS qualified maintenance technician beginning in the spring of 2011.

Over the past few years most of us have heard of the unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV, sometimes called remotely piloted aircraft or RPA. A quick search on the Internet will provide you with a host of pictures and explanations of these new technology flying machines. Last year thousands of people watched first hand as a U.S. Customs and Border Protection “Predator B” arrived at EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh, WI.

The typical UAV also has several support functions that are all equally necessary in order to operate, and the term unmanned aircraft system or UAS was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense and the term UAS has also been adopted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). A typical UAS consists of the aircraft, one or more ground control functions, information data-links, and other equipment that together make up the “system.”

Currently, most UAS are operated by government or military organizations, however, civilian manufacturing, research, and education groups are also operating them. Many see the UAS as an emerging segment of the aviation industry. The civilian applications talked about include law enforcement and surveillance, fire patrol, search and rescue, electric transmission line and pipeline patrol, agriculture, photography and imagery, mapping, and freight.

This brings us to the following questions. Will this emerging industry create jobs? Where will the civilian-use UAS be operated and maintained? And finally, how can a person receive maintenance training on UAS? The training question is being answered by Northland Community and Technical College (NCTC) located in Thief River Falls, MN.

A little background

The October 2008 issue of AMT featured an article titled “Bootstraps” by the late Bill O’Brien. The story spoke about the challenges faced by a rural A&P school in the northern United States — yes NCTC. A few years ago the enrollment plummeted and the school president had no choice but to put the school on suspended status due to financial reasons. I won’t review the entire article with you, but in short the students that were left didn’t give up. With the city of Thief River Falls on their side they began contacting state legislators and eventually the school agreed to review the decision to close down the school. This A&P school was almost lost.

In February of this year, the Aviation Maintenance Program at NCTC was awarded a grant for nearly $5 million, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), to establish the Northland Community & Technical College Unmanned Aircraft Systems Maintenance Training Center — the first of its kind for a school like this. First you might say that’s quite a turnaround, followed by, why all of this in northern Minnesota, some 70 miles from the Canadian border? In order to understand this very interesting program I visited NCTC and one of the area’s other aerospace education organizations the University of North Dakota (UND).

Opportunity and the grant

Scott Fletcher was hired at NCTC as the director of aviation in early 2009 and the aviation program was at a low point. Fletcher recalls, “In early 2008 the aviation program had nine students. Later that year when Bill O’Brien did his article we were up to 25 students, but still not enough to maintain.” Shortly after beginning his new role he attended the 2009 UAS Summit in neighboring Grand Forks, ND. Part of the U.S. Air Force Base Realignment and Closure decision of 2005, was for Grand Forks Air Force Base (AFB) to transition to UAS missions by the end of 2010. More than 170 representatives from the government, military, civilian aerospace, UND, and others attended the two-day UAS action summit designed to spotlight the future of the UAS.

Fletcher returned from this summit thinking about all he heard and immediately went to work communicating with his colleagues at NCTC, UND Aerospace, and area industry, government, and groups who all had some stake in the region’s UAS activity. He saw an opportunity for the ailing A&P school to be part of this emerging and exciting industry.

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