SANDPOINT — The North Idaho High School Aerospace Program has successfully prepared students for broad range of careers in the aerospace industry over the years.
This year, NIHSA is broadening those opportunities by including an unmanned aerial systems, or drones, to the program.
"A lot of people think of the aerospace program as just being for pilots," said Ken Larson, NIHSA's pilot training and academic instructor. "There is hardly a career you can think of that isn't involved somehow in aviation."
Those skills can translate into careers in mechanics, robotics, computer science, dispatchers, traffic controllers, or working at a counter at an airline.
Larson is looking for students to join NIHSA's drone program, as it will not officially start until he has a group of around 10. The name of the program is "kind of misleading," Larson pointed out, as it is open to all North Idaho students, with an emphasis on grades six through 12, including those who attend traditional or alternative schools, as well as home-schooled students.
In the meantime, as the NIHSA crew sets its sight on starting a drone racing league in the future, they have partnered with the Spokane FPV drone racing league. NIHSA and the league will hold demonstrations and training at upcoming events on Oct. 19 and 20 to draw attention to the overall NIHSA program and introduce the UAS program. When the Spokane FPV learned about NIHSA and the desire to get a drone program up and running, Larson said they were more than happy to help out.
"They have really gone out of their way to help us," Larson said.
Just as in other forms of racing, drones have different "classes," Larson said. There are small ones called "tiny whoops," he said, to large ones that can do 100 miles per hour. Larson has some of the "tiny whoops," as well as a couple of larger drones. When there are enough students to get the UAS program rolling, or flying in this case, the group would initially learn the technology side of the small drones, such as the components, wiring and GPS. The two larger drones are fixed wing. One is called an AR Wing and is a radio-controlled model, and building it will be the second project for the group. The other is an X8, he said, and has a seven-foot wingspan. The latter can be programmed through a computer to fly autonomously.
"One of the things we are hoping for is to get some students involved who are really interested in computers and writing code," Larson said.
NIHSA received a grant from the Community Assistance League, as well as $500 seed money from Empire Airlines in Hayden, to launch the drone program, Larson said.
The drone program is an extension of NIHSA'a ACES Aviation Workshop, ground school and flight training. The students in the ACES program recently finished restoring a 1942 Taylorcraft that was used for glider pilot training during World War II. The plane sustained heavy hail damage before NIHSA acquired it, but the students and their mentors had it in tip-top shape, soaring through the air in no time. They have another 1942 Taylorcraft that needs a lot more work, including an engine swap, so that will be the next project, Larson said.
Through flight training, students can get their sport or private pilot's license. A sport pilot license requires a minimum of 20 hours of flight training. A minimum of 40 hours of flight training is required for a private pilot's license. Both require a knowledge exam and a checkride with an FAA inspector.
At ground school, students can earn high school credit while learning the basic information they need for pilot training. The ground school class will include the training for students 16 and older to get a commercial FAA drone license, which is called a Remote Pilot Certificate.
Students can participate in one or all of the individual NIHSA programs if they choose.
Several success stories have emerged from the program, including recent graduates such as Ron Korn who is studying engineering at University of Idaho. Maggie Kircher, Larson's first student when the program started about six years ago, is now a pilot with Republic Airlines. Another SHS graduate, Gavin Klein, earned his license as an airframe mechanic and is working on his instrument rating at the University of Alaska. These are just a few in a long list of successes Larson could list.
"I am just really proud of all of our students," he said.
For the kickoff event on Oct. 19, Spokane FPV pilots will show off a couple of the larger drones with an obstacle course demonstration during halftime of the Sandpoint High School Bulldogs home football game at War Memorial Field.
The Oct. 20 event will provide a hands-on opportunity for students and adults to learn about drones and drone racing. From 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., there will be displays, demonstrations of various drones and training workshops in the SHS gym and on the field behind the gym.
From 1-3 p.m. there will be professional drone races by pilots of the Spokane FPV, featuring the smaller drones. The drones have cameras and the pilots wear goggles to see where they are going. Larson said a screen will be set up for the audiences to see the pilots' views as well.
"The drone races are really cool to watch," Larson said. "... We are really hoping to encourage anybody who has any interest in this to come.".
This is a free family event, though donations are welcome. Larson said they also need volunteers for the NIHSA program, including people who can help with things such as the website or grant writing.
The website is currently under construction and will be back up soon, Larson said, at highschoolaerospace.org. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mary Malone can be reached by email at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.