Skip to main content

On Devils’ wings

A look inside ASU’s Aviation Programs, where students learn all aspects of flight, from physics to business to the sheer joy of flight

A plane sits on a desert runway.

April 28, 2016

Arizona’s blue desert skies have long beckoned aviators.

Phoenix native Frank Luke shot down 14 German balloons and four airplanes in eight days in World War I. Now state-of-the-art F-35 fighters fly out of the base named after him. World War II legend Joe Foss (26 kills over Guadalcanal) spent his last years in Scottsdale. Ever drive along U.S. 60 and wonder what the giant white “PHOENIX” with a west-pointing arrow was for? It was to help British pilots training during World War II find their way back to airfields.

Out in that direction, on the edge of a former Air Force base, sits Arizona State University’s Polytechnic campus, home to the university’s Aviation Programs. The programs — part of the Polytechnic School, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering — has been around, in one form or another, since World War II. It celebrates its 20th anniversary in its current incarnation this year.

Kenny Armijo, a sophomore from Mesa majoring in aeronautical management technology/professional flight, checks a single-engine Cessna 172 on a nearly cloudless day in January. Thrumming propellers and jets clawing for altitude penetrate the air, awash with the tangy smell of avgas (aviation gasoline).

“Flying is amazing, especially out here in the Southwest,” Armijo said. “You have such a good view, as opposed to flying in a commercial aircraft.”

By the time Armijo graduates, he will have taken apart and put together an engine. He will know the two landing procedures for a crack on the outside of a window and a crack on the inside. He will know a good sound from a bad sound. He will be better trained than pilots put out by the military or commercial airlines.

Jet jockeys

Aviation students in a flight simulator.

ASU students Connor Hinz (left) and Matt Archambault prepare for approach and landing in the King Air 200 flight simulator.

This and top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“It’s a big deal when you do your first solo,” said Jimmy Kimberly. “It’s like getting married.”

Kimberly is a lecturer in the program. He was a line pilot for America West Airlines, retiring in 2005 after flying in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Prior to the airline, he flew different types of warplanes in the Air Force for 20 years. He was awarded the Silver Star, Distinguished Flying Cross, and 12 Air Medals for combat service in Vietnam.

On the second floor of the Simulator building at Poly (the Aviation Programs’ headquarters, across the street from Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport), there’s a wall of photos of graduates in cockpits.

Compass Airlines. U.S. Navy. ExpressJet Airlines. Falcon Executive Aviation. Alaska Airlines. U.S. Air Force. There’s even one covert photo, no name, nolabel on the aircraft, no insignia on the grad’s fatigues, only a caption that reads “UAV pilot.”

Talk to the students and faculty out here, and you’ll discover they all have a story about being fascinated with planes and flying from an early age.

“Everyone can point to something that led down that path,” said faculty associate Mike Hampshire. “Once you’re in it, you don’t want to do anything else.”

Hampshire would know. He has spent his whole lifeUnited States Air Force Academy, 1971. Instructor/Jumpmaster U.S. Air Force Academy Parachute Team. Member 1970 National Collegiate Championship Parachute Team. Instructor Pilot/Flight Examiner F-106 Minot Air Force Base. Interceptor Weapons School Class 80B. F-106 Weapons School Instructor Tyndall Air Force Base. Instructor Pilot/Flight Examiner T-38 Williams Air Force Base. Instructor Pilot/Flight Examiner F-4E/G Clark Air Base, Republic of the Philippines. Retired as Lieutenant Colonel 1990. American Airlines Dallas Fort Worth Base Boeing 727 and DC-10 Flight Engineer. in planes, and a fair bit out of them too. He is what all these students want to grow up to be.

The maroon-and-gold baron goes into the wild blue

Armijo wants to pilot big commercial jets.

“That’d be great, but I have to start off small,” he said.

Ever since he was a kid, he always liked planes. He would come out to Gateway, press his face against the fence, and watch planes take off and land.

“Whenever we went on vacation, I almost enjoyed going to the airport more than the vacation itself, being able to see all the planes and talk to some of the pilots,” he said. “Once I found out ASU had a flight school, it seemed like a good way to follow the dream.”

He’s on the tarmac, doing a pre-flight check. The two-seater plane sports a pitchfork on the cowl. It’s one of 20 emblazoned with the ASU insignia. The planes don’t belong to the university; they belong to flight provider ATP. Although classroom training takes place on the Poly campus, official flight training must be done with a certified flight school provider, and faculty determined ATP to be the perfect choice.

“I also have to check the oil dipstick,” Armijo said. “It’s just like a car. That’s seven quarts; that’s good.”

It’s one item on his list of 50 pre-flight checks. There are slightly more than that in flight. He looks over the tires to make sure they’re not leaking brake fluid. He also checks the wings and nose for bird nests.

“They like to build nests in planes,” Armijo said.

He started from scratch at ASU. All classes are accredited by the Federal Aviation Administration. No class absences are allowed — at all.

“ASU has a really good program for developing pilots,” he said. “They have a class for every step of the way.”

His flight instructor walks out and meets him beside the plane. They hop in, strap on, taxi out and take off.

The fence between the little boy and the planes has disappeared.

What holds planes together

Aviation student Eamonn McIntyre adjusts a miniature wing in a wind tunnel.

Eamonn McIntyre demonstrates setting up a student-made wing profile for testing in the wind tunnel in the structures lab on the Polytechnic campus on Feb. 5. McIntyre speaks about the bonus of learning about aerodynamics and metallurgy that come with the ASU Aviation Programs. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Down in the structures lab in the basement of the Sim building, wing sections and aircraft blueprints cover the walls. Drill presses, table clamps and racks of tools are everywhere.

Eamonn McIntyre, currently a private pilot, is a senior earning an aviation management technology degree in professional aviation, with an emphasis on aviation business management. He has a passion for business and wants to work for an airline.

AMT 280: Aerospace Structures, Materials, and Systems introduces students to aerodynamics not covered in flight school. All aviation students take the class, even if they’re studying to become air-traffic controllers or airport managers. They learn about metals, but obviously not as much as a materials engineer. There are lessons and demonstrations about hydraulics.

“Here at ASU this class is amazing because you learn aerodynamics, structures and engineering,” McIntyre said. “As pilots, we’re not engineers. ... If you have good theory, good structural knowledge, and something happens while flying, you’ll have an idea of what’s happening. You don’t learn a lot of this stuff in-depth in flight training. ... You learn so much it’s amazing. You learn about what’s holding your airplane together.”

They study rivets, honeycomb structures and metal bending. There’s a wind tunnel in the lab. Wings with different profiles can be inserted in the tunnel.

“You can see how wind operates,” McIntyre said. “You can see how air reacts as you change the angle of the wing. You’re able to see the lift and drag components. ... There’s no better way to see aerodynamics than a wind tunnel.”

Students actually build a wing at the end of the semester, test it in the tunnel and write a full lab report on its performance.

It’s not just useful for pilots.

“If you’re an (air-traffic controller), you might know why a pilot is in trouble,” McIntyre said.

The difference between a good sound and a bad one

ASU aviation student Christian Hartwell

Air transportation management senior Christian Hartwell, talks about the power plant lab next to a cutaway Pratt & Whitney J-57 turbojet engine at the Polytechnic campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

When Christian Hartwell was 4, his father gave him a bright red toy plane. He has had his eyes on the sky ever since.

“I’m pursuing my passion,” he said. “Aviation is a bug you never get rid of.”

Hartwell is a senior earning a bachelor’s degree in air transportation management. (“You can’t fly your whole life.”) He has a private pilot’s license and is licensed to fly multi-engine aircraft.

Down in the power plant lab, he is surrounded by engines of all shapes, sizes and types. Models of hydraulics and cutaways of different systems crowd the rooms. Students learn about electricity and starters, gear boxes and fire suppressors.

“Your first project is to take an engine apart and put it back together,” Hartwell said of the class. They start with reciprocating engines like those in Cessnas. “You start looking at compressors and turbines. You have a real working knowledge. When you have a working knowledge of engines, you have an idea of what’s happening.”

Kimberly teaches the class. “Everybody has to take this class,” Kimberly said. “It’s part of our core curriculum.”

“He gives you an in-depth knowledge of engines,” Hartwell said. “Obviously we’re not going to be mechanics.”

“Professor Kimberly says, ‘You guys are going to know more than an airline pilot,’” Hartwell said. “He teaches us the difference between a good sound and a bad sound. ... When I hear wisdom and knowledge, I recognize it.”

The foot stomp

A third of the class failed to remember the horsepower equation on a recent exam.

“Foot stomp and everything — I told them,” Kimberly said.

The Kimberly foot stomp is legendary in the ASU Aviation Programs.

“When Professor Kimberly wants you to remember something important, he stomps his foot,” McIntyre said with a laugh.

“And when he stomps his foot, you know you’d better pay attention,” Hartwell said.

“That’s an airline (instructor’s) technique,” Kimberly said of the foot stomp. “You won’t see that in the Air Force. He’s giving you clues so you pass. I don’t think they foot-stomp when the FAA inspector is in class. I’m stomping my foot just about the whole class.”

Fireballs and compressor blasts

Aviation instructor Jimmy Kimberly walks in a lab.

Aviation lecturer Jimmy Kimberly has years of flying experience as both a military and a commercial pilot, and pushes the students to understand mechanical and aeronautical concepts in addition to piloting. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

“Like all places, the military and airlines spend more time driving the plane than learning this stuff,” Kimberly said. “At ASU we have a better idea. We teach them the fundamentals, and it makes them better pilots.”

The class goes on field trips to Southwest Airlines hangars and the Honeywell plant near Sky Harbor. What is the value of understanding power plants and aircraft structures to transportation managers?

“They speak the language,” Kimberly said. “They can talk to CEOs about mechanics.”

He demonstrates a riveter. “Nobody gets to rivet unless you’re a mechanic. Riveting is fun. ... When you understand what’s going on down in the hangar, it makes you a better manager.”

An air-traffic controller who understands power plants can tell the difference between a compressor blast — which emits a single fireball — and an engine on fire. With that knowledge he or she can reassure a panicky pilot that the plane is not in fact on fire.

“They can tell (pilots) what they’re lacking and how to get down out of the clouds,” Kimberly said. “They’re smart pilots when they leave here. They’re really competent in systems.”

Airlines and military trainers “don’t spend the time on this,” he said. “They want to get them up and start moving people around.”

Cracks and pops

Two cracked dual-pane windows sit in the back of the power plant lab. A crack on the outer pane calls for a different landing procedure than a crack on the inside pane.

“When it fractures, it gets your attention,” Kimberly said.

The students put metal into a machine that stresses it until it fractures.

“Metal makes a loud pop! when it breaks. Pop! Like that. I never heard it in flight.”

But he wants his students to know what it sounds like.

The airlines and military “don’t tell you much about aerodynamics. They’re not interested in it. ... We’re the only four-year school that does this. It’s all hands-on training. When they get there, it won’t be strange to them.”

“I didn’t get any of that in the Air Force,” he added.

His most recent acquisition was a 757 brake assembly donated by a Chandler aircraft parts company. How does he get all the parts, components and mechanisms in the labs?

“I go out and ask. Most places donate to ASU because they know we’ll use it in class,” Kimberly said.                  

Dawn flight over Honolulu

It’s a sunny late morning in Mesa, but in Honolulu it’s just after dawn and overcast. That’s where Matt Archambault, senior, and Connor Hinz, junior, are flying in the King Air 200 simulator as part of Air Navigation and Airline Instrument Procedure classes. It’s a multi-pilot class studying crew procedures.

 “We can put any kind of weather up there,” class instructor Mike Hampshire said. No rain today, but as the session continues, the overcast conditions clear up and the sun comes out.

“I’ve worked with lots of simulators over the years, and this is as good a picture as I’ve ever seen,” Hampshire said.

It’s high resolution, and the detail on the five-screen setup is incredible: warships in Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona Memorial shining white below, waves breaking on Waikiki Beach, even the pink Royal Hawaiian hotel can be spotted below. It’s pretty quiet on the streets, though.

“If we had it hooked up the way I like, there’d be cars driving by underneath and sailboats and all kinds of nonsense,” Hampshire said.

The simulator can re-create airports in North and South America, Europe and Australia. The computers (one for each screen) are autonomous. They might send a fuel tanker or a baggage truck rolling nearby.

Archambault and Hinz take off, flying above the docks and gantries of the port of Honolulu. Clouds close in. Only the whirring props are visible. They’re flying on instruments now. In addition to the plane’s instruments, both student aviators have GPS on their iPads mounted near the yokes.

“That’s the way everyone flies now,” Hampshire said of the iPads. He acts as the air-traffic controller. “Turn 266. Maintain 3,000 feet.”

The visuals are so good sometimes Hampshire has to hold onto the simulator cowl or a table to stand steady.

“The goal is to have them work as a team,” Hampshire said. “Matt is feeding all kinds of information to Connor so he knows what’s coming up.”

“One of the advantages of a simulator is you can do a lot of things in a short time you couldn’t do in an airplane,” Hampshire said. For example, if you mess up a landing approach, you can simply reset the sim, as opposed to flying all the way around the airport and lining up again, wasting fuel and air time.

Archambault and Hinz swap off flying legs, one flying as captain, then the other, so they learn both duties.

“It’s fun,” Archambault said. “It’s so good. A big part of flying is practicing procedures, so being able to do that without risk is great.”

“It doesn’t mimic the feel, but in terms of control responsiveness it feels the same,” Hinz said. “There’s the same resistance.”

Both want to fly for commercial airlines. Archambault had a neighbor who went through ASU’s program. “It was a pretty easy choice for me,” he said.

Managing airports

Managing an airport is quite different from managing other places. For one, they use public money. For another, they change frequently — air transportation has been rocked quite severely twice this century, first by 9/11, and again in 2008 when the Great Recession laid waste to air travel.

“It’s not always routine,” said Juan Fonseca, a senior majoring in air transportation management. “You have to be able to adapt to your environment and the situation around you. It’s more analytical and problem-solving. ... You have an impact not only on your airport, but your community.”

Fonseca is learning the business side of commercial aviation, including accounting, financing and management. Airport planning — adding more gates and more capacity for passengers, for instance — is also part of the degree.

Fonseca has always been fascinated with airports.

“The first time I flew with Southwest to go visit my grandparents in Texas, I really liked the whole environment and the experience, the customer service, the feeling of jet engines,” he said. “It’s amazing how many people you see, from ticketing to the TSA to the flight crew, how they all work together and make your flying experience good, or bad.

“If you have a great experience with an airline, you might be more inclined to fly with them again, or become a frequent flier, or as you get older, strive to become an employee of that airline. Being a Southwest employee has always been a goal of mine since I was in elementary school.”

Fonseca enjoyed a 10-week internship at Southwest Airlines corporate headquarters in Dallas. He is slated to graduate in December.

Pushing tin

Planes land, take off and taxi to and from terminals. It sounds difficult, until you actually see air-traffic controllers at work. Then you realize how insanely hard it is. It’s like constantly fiddling with a Rubik’s Cube in your mind, changing, adapting, orchestrating the flow of traffic. There are no discernible patterns, it never stops, and it’s never the same.

It’s intense. Really intense. Restaurant kitchens, commodities trading floors and newsrooms are all high-stress, fast-paced environments, but control towers top them all. And if there’s a mistake in those first three environments, no one dies.

These are people who manage 12 planes simultaneously. It’s why they yell at coffeehouse employees who can’t coherently pull four coffees together.

On the air-traffic control simulator, it’s about three in the afternoon at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The sun glints off the head of Camelback Mountain and the office towers in downtown Phoenix. Maintenance trucks are towing planes across the tarmac. Southwest, Alaska, United — they’re all taking off and landing.

“Southwest 2902, Phoenix tower, 25 right, cleared for takeoff,” said the air-traffic controller.

“It’s a lot of practice, a lot of repetition,” said lecturer Verne Latham. “You’ve got to learn what your priorities are.”

Latham is a tall, lanky guy with a brush moustache who worked from 1982 to 1987 as an air-traffic controller at the tower in El Cajon, California, then in the tower at Sky Harbor from 1987 to 2007. He has seen it all, including a car thief driving a pickup truck through a fence onto the Sky Harbor tarmac and underneath planes.

Military jets are coming in. They’re moving faster than the commercial jets, so Latham has his student clear them to land first.

“Raptor 22, turn left hotel four.”

“Let’s clear the next guy for takeoff,” Latham said.

The student wrestles with his flight strips, strips of paper with lines of numbers and codes on them that tell what airline, where they’re headed and how, and other information. The strips are organized on the desk in order of approach. Almost all towers use flight strips.

“See how confusing it gets if you don’t keep your strips up to date?” Latham said.

“Big boy heavy turn left hotel two.”

Voice recognition software on the computer forces the students to enunciate clearly and smoothly.

Sim time can cut training time by 25 to 30 percent. In the real world, you have to wait for situations to occur before you can learn to handle them.

“As opposed to someone waiting for three years to handle an accident, you can do it right here,” Latham said. Or fog, or an engine fire on the runway. “You can have it over and over and over, until you learn how to tackle it.”

“I can make it rain, or snow, or throw a kangaroo on the runway,” Latham said. “You can study all you want, but most people learn by doing.”

Someone to watch over me: Drone pilots

A student-made drone flies in an ASU hangar.

Experienced remote-control pilot Tyler Dears (right, background) flies his team’s hand-made drone inside the ASU hangar at Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, adjacent to the Polytechnic campus, on April 23. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

It’s a Saturday morning in ASU’s cavernous hangar at Gateway Airport. For the 10 students assembled, it’s the final step in AMT 270 — the introductory class to unmanned aircraft systems.

The final course project is to design, develop and build an unmanned aircraft. Today they will test and fly the quad copters they’ve built. Because of new FAA regulations, they can’t fly outside.

Instructor James Linehan wants to see a variety of maneuvers: a hover 4 feet off the ground; a 360-degree right turn; a 360-degree left turn; a slide right; and a slide left.

The drones are cardboard boxes with balsa-wood legs and plastic propellers. Inside there’s a circuit board and a motor.

Sophomore Tyler Dears already has a pilot’s license. After graduation he wants to get a military contract job flying drones. Civilian contractors do a lot of reconnaissance for the military. It’s the aspect of drones people don’t hear about very much because it’s overshadowed by the exploits of the Predator and Reaper armed drones.

“The nice thing about flying UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] for contractors is it pays really well,” Dears said. “You get paid a lot more.”

Being deployed pays even more, and that’s what Dears wants to do; to go on a six- or nine-month deployment and pay off his student loans. “If the troops do it, I can too,” he said.

In addition to military work, there are dozens of other opportunities for drone pilots: law enforcement, search and rescue, land laser mapping, wildfire analysis, disaster assessment, pipeline and power-line inspection, movies and commercials, and agriculture. It makes more sense for a rancher to check his fences from the air than to spend two or three days riding around on an ATV.

“The uses are still growing,” Dears said.

Junior Matt Dunn flew drones for four and a half years for the Army. He searched for improvised explosive devices, provided overwatch surveillance for troops on patrol, and gave battlefield overviews for officers. For the latter, a drone’s-eye view saved them dozens of calls while still providing excellent situational awareness. After the Army, Dunn spent five years as a civilian contractor teaching soldiers how to fly and maintain drones at Fort Huachuca, the Army’s drone training center. He is earning an aviation management degree and has a pilot’s license.

“I’ve never flown these before,” Dunn said, looking at the class’ kit drones.

They prove to be pretty squirrelly. The students with pilot’s licenses are having trouble just hovering them. Dears, who works in a hobby shop, struggles to keep it upright. Dunn, with more than nine years of experience, barely gets it off the ground.

“Have you flown the hard one in the sim?” one student asks another. “That’s a lot easier than this.”

The kits are cheap; they have to be, because of lab fees and student budgets. Linehan said you can go out and buy an off-the-shelf drone that is much easier to fly right out of the box.

“These are much harder, which is good because they’re learning something,” he said. “It takes a lot to get it off the ground.”

After more than an hour of flips, slides and propeller-shattering crashes, Linehan adjusts his expectations for the day.

“Just get it off the ground,” he tells the class.

Sophomores — with jobs

Four commercial airlines — SkyWest, Air Wisconsin, ExpressJet and American Eagle — have agreements with the university guaranteeing job interviews to ASU grads.

“Our pathway agreements with regional carriers provide a seamless transition from graduating to employment,” program director Marc O’Brien said. “It’s truly a great connection to take you to a major carrier.”

American Airlines takes it farther. It gives a bonus at graduation and guarantees a path to fly big jets after two years with the regional carrier Envoy Air, a subsidiary. To qualify, students have to be instrument-rated, be a sophomore, have a 3.0 GPA in aviation and a 2.5 overall GPA.

“You can have your last job interview as a sophomore,” said senior Tyler Faber. “Essentially they give you a seat at the biggest airline in the world.”

Learning on a flight line

“The Polytechnic campus is perfect for a flight program,” said program director O’Brien. “There aren’t that many university flight programs that have an airport co-located. Our students can live here, take classes and walk to the flight line. It’s all right here; very aviation-centric.”

O’Brien holds FAA Airline Transport Pilot and Certified Flight Instructor-Gold Seal certificates. He was a line pilot for USAir Express, a regional air carrier flying in the northeastern United States. Before that, he was employed by American Trans Air as a flight instructor and finished his tenure as the company’s assistant chief instructor.

Arizona weather is a boon to the school. Students don’t have to wait for hours or days for the skies to brighten. They’re cleared hot 99 percent of the time.

Cross-training for pilots, air-traffic controllers, drone pilots, and airport managers — the program’s four degree offerings — is designed to benefit all of them.

“We feel that those courses are going to help in whichever career path they take in aviation,” O’Brien said. “Even management students need to know the technology. A lot of students who come to a program like this in aviation want to be a pilot. When they get here, they realize there are so many other careers in aviation. These are things pilots don’t necessarily get to see.”

Students who start out in professional flight might change majors, but they’ve taken the core courses and maximized their credits if they decide to switch.

“The logistics of being in a flight school associated with an airport, the laboratories we have here you don’t see in other aviation programs, that’s what sets us apart,” O’Brien said. “The faculty we have here are all from the industry, commercial, military, civilian sectors — we really cover all the different areas. There’s a wide variety of faculty expertise. Not only do we compete well with the other major aviation universities, but I’d say we’re probably a front-runner.”