Flying high | Rebranded K-State Salina campus looks to future of aviation, technology

·5 min read

Oct. 23—Alysia Starkey, the dean and CEO of Kansas State University Salina Aerospace and Technology Campus, said she is proud of how far the institution has come in the 20 years since she started as a library aide.

The Mercury toured the rebranded campus and visited the aviation program facilities earlier this week. Formerly known as the K-State Polytechnic Campus, university officials announced the refreshed name in August. Starkey said the new name better reflects the campus's mission, which has changed since the campus was gifted to the city of Salina in 1967 and later became part of the K-State system in 1991.

"The 'Polytechnic' name came from our approach to how we do teaching and learning," Starkey said. She said a survey with university stakeholders in October 2019 indicated the majority of them wanted the campus name to be changed.

"Because we have such a niche market here, being able to identify for prospective students exactly what it is that we do, and to limit the confusion, was pretty important as well," Starkey said.

Signs featuring the old name are still evident around campus, and Starkey said those will be changed out by the end of the year. The rebranding comes as the Salina campus is experiencing growth. The campus has 741 students enrolled for the 2021 academic year. That's the highest enrollment figure the campus has noted in the past five years. The campus had 705 students in 2020 and 669 in 2019. The growth was enough for campus officials to approve the construction of a new residence hall, which should be completed by next fall.

Clint Strong, head of the aviation department, said the state of the aviation department is "busy" with "record enrollment this year," but he did not have numbers for aviation department enrollment on hand.

"So far, I think from that perspective, it's extremely busy," Strong said. "Of course, airlines are picking back up, and we have a lot of flow-through for students that are coming through the program into the airlines and different aviation sectors, so that's good."

The Aerospace and Technology Campus is retaining the College of Technology and Aviation, which includes academic departments focusing on aviation, integrated studies and unmanned aircraft systems. The campus offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs along with credit and non-credit technical and graduate-level certificates.

The campus has housed the university's aviation and engineering technology programs since it became part of the K-State system. Historically, the Salina campus has been a two-year technical college that merged with a public university. The campus adopted the Polytechnic name in 2015.

Strong said one of the biggest shifts coming up is a rotation of fleet aircraft from old to new.

"We're moving older aircraft that have certain level of total time on them," Strong said. "You get an older airplane, you're going to work on it more, because of components getting older and they break or need changed out."

The fleet rotation is thanks to a gift from Salina residents and K-State alums John and Kim Vanier. The actual dollar amount of their gift was not released. That gift also funded the renovation of the campus aircraft hangars.

There are more than 30 aircraft in the campus fleet, ranging from Cessna 172 single-engine planes to the larger twin-engine Cessna Baron. Each airplane is wheeled onto the flight line daily for inspection. Aviation students fly with certified flight instructors during their pilot's training, taking off and landing on the two runways on campus. They also have access to a selection of four flight simulators also provided by the Vaniers' donation.

Teaching assistant professor and professional pilot Neal Bloomquist said he's heard from some airline flight instructors who've visited campus and told him the simulators on hand are "better than what they have" at the airlines themselves.

"I just think the technology involved ... the student can actually see the workings of whatever buttons they press," Bloomquist said. "They can see how things operate, so it's kind of cool from that standpoint."

The simulators feature digital diagrams of individual aircraft systems, from fuel to landing gear to hydraulics and engine startup, that can be accessed by a touchscreen mounted to the simulator. The chairs in the simulators are a "pretty close" match to cockpit seats in most planes, and on the main simulator a large wraparound screen provides a view of the "horizon" for aspiring pilots. The professor can monitor a student's simulated flight via a computer connected close by.

Bloomquist has 19 students in his class for the fall semester; he limits his class to 24 students because he is the only instructor available. A pilot with more than 13,000 flight hours, Bloomquist said there are nearly endless avenues for people interested in a career in aviation.

"An airplane is an airplane is an airplane," Bloomquist said. "There's minor variances, but they operate pretty much the same, so students can get the knowledge on one (simulator) but transfer that knowledge to other aircraft."

Bloomquist, who has experience flying the Boeing 777 jet airliner, said some of his students are seeking a career flying commercial airliners, while some look for corporate pilot opportunities or are actively serving in the military. Students log eight to 10 hours on the simulator per semester. He said the most fun thing for him is to watch the students' progress through the program.

"When they sit down and look at (the simulators), they go 'Oh my' and their eyes get great big," Bloomquist said. "But by the end of the semester, it's old hat to them."

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