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A Workplace of 20,000 Wings

by Jake Hall

“The World's Greatest Aviation Celebration” has it all when it comes to aircraft. Warbirds. Vintage. Homebuilts. Ultralights. Some you would find in a hangar at your local airport, others so unique they are the only one of their kind. You name it, there's likely an example of it at Oshkosh.

For nearly 70 years, aviation enthusiasts from around the world have gathered at AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, for one week of air shows, pyrotechnics, workshops, networking, and more. More than 600,000 people attend, making it the largest fly-in convention in North America.

For many, arriving at Oshkosh is a rite of passage that can only be satisfied by being one of the 10,000A field of planes and people at Oshkosh Airventure aircraft to fly in, landing at what becomes the busiest airport in the world, Wittman Regional Airport. In fact, the fields are packed to the gills with row upon row of these private planes, tiny tents set up next to each one—true-blue pilots camped out for the long haul.

Airventure is hard to describe in person. Think state fair meets airplane exhibition meets amusement park. Everywhere you go, eyes are locked on the sky with good reason. A helicopter somersaults backwards and nose dives through the air. Massive fighter jets fly in formation, eardrums resounding in their wake. Upside-down prop planes zoom back and forth for display. A true pilot’s paradise.

Every summer, a team of LeTourneau aviation faculty and students make the Airventure odyssey (by plane and by car) to recruit prospective students and connect with alumni. This year, they were joined by representatives from the School of Engineering & Engineering Technology, the university alumni and marketing departments, and even President Steven D. Mason for portions of the trip.

It might not be apparent, but what seems like just a convention is actually a meaningful gateway into the world of aviation and future aviators in particular. It was heard multiple times throughout the week: “If you make it to Oshkosh before the age of 12, the chances of you going into aviation are like 80%.” “The first time I came to Oshkosh, I fell in love with planes. I knew then and there I wanted to become a pilot.”

But, what makes this world so interesting? Why are aviators some of the most passionate people you meet when it comes to their career?

Dick Knapinski, Director of Communications for the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) which manages Airventure had this to say: “When we think about aviation, many of us think of climbing into commercial airliners or pilots flying their own airplanes, but there’s so much more aviation can do for the world. Flying cancer patients from place to place, doing good things for kids, missionary work, even rescuing animals. Those type of things happen every day. We as aviators are involved, we want to make the world a better place, and we have the tools and resources to do it through the air.”

A wheels-up career clearly affords many opportunities for making the world and our society a better place, but for Christians, the magnitude is even greater. The LeTourneau aviation community recognizes this calling and is training its students to do the same.

Impact in the Skies

As a current flight instructor, alum Jeff Rosinbaum (2020) lives this reality on a daily basis. He and his fellow instructors instill their students with an explicit eternal perspective: that aviation careers are “about more than flying the biggest jets to the best destinations for the highest salaries.” The implicit intention of LeTourneau flight training is to produce students who excel in everything they do. “If you have poor character, work ethic, and flying skills, nobody will listen to your perspective on the telos of a flying career. In order to influence society, you must gain its respect.”

Jeff Rosinbaum seated at a tableRosinbaum reiterates his own passion for making a difference in the world through a career in the skies: “The average pilot will have a career that spans upwards of forty years, and around 50% of their time is spent away from home. This is ample time to interact with strangers—what excites me the most is the ability to share truth and love with the innumerable coworkers I’ll sit beside or passengers I’ll sit in front of.”

The great thing about flying a plane is there’s no limit to where you can go. Siberia, the African interior, the remote islands and jungles of the world. Many LeTourneau graduates take up the call to missions aviation, and one in particular is living that out in the interior Alaskan village of Grayling, population 210. How does one travel to Grayling? Only by boat or by plane.

Aaron Dalton (2016), a Mission Aviation graduate, is currently serving with InterAct Ministries whose focus is making disciples among the least-reached people groups of the North Pacific. Aaron and his wife, Tisha, live alongside the people of Grayling as village missionaries, learning their stories and building authentic relationships to strengthen and encourage the local church and community.

Aaron sees aviation as a necessity: “Planes put people face to face, and they bring in critical tools. Even in today's world with satellite internet and Zoom calls, there's no replacement for in-person relationships. The apostle Paul sent useful letters to the early churches about how he yearned to see them in person. There are still many places around the world where aviation is the only practical way to make this happen.”

Aaron is living his dream of providing that practical help and Christlike care to those in need, and it was theAaron and Tisha Dawson LeTourneau School of Aviation that God used to cultivate that call. “God used my time at LeTourneau to mold my heart from being excited about flying planes with a side benefit of working for the Lord to being passionate about sharing the Gospel with a side benefit of working around planes.” He continues, “The aviation staff had real world experience, but they left opportunities for big corporate promotions and rewards behind to pour into student's lives instead. They took the time to speak truth about how Jesus changes lives and how he guided their paths.”

Integrity in the Industry

One member of that department is current Chief Flight Instructor and Professor of Flight Science, Brad Wooden, a LeTourneau alum who worked with a regional airline before returning to the university to instruct. Wooden understands the impact Christians can make in a secular industry and the important relationship an airline pilot has with his crew.

“I once had an instructor tell me that flying on the flight deck is equal to a counseling couch; you're sitting there behind a locked door with someone for 80-100 hours a month and there's the stress of life and everything else going on. You have a lot of time to sit there and talk and really learn who that person is. So, if you can bring your Christian worldview into that setting and share the gospel with those people, the fields are ripe to go out there and witness and be a missionary.”

In addition to the relational power Christians have in the industry, they have the opportunity to model integrity and honesty. Ethan Pierce (2013) is the Director of Flight Operations for Dynamic Aviation, and his company actively seeks out pilots who demonstrate honor in their work.

“Integrity is the most important thing in aviation. When you’re in a cockpit, you’re often there by yourself, and all that’s holding you back is your integrity. We’re not just looking for someone who can fly a plane, we’re looking for someone who can encompass the whole person and represent the company well and do everything to the best of their ability.

As someone who hires pilots now, whenever I see LeTourneau University on a resume, it’s an immediate interview for me. I’ve learned to appreciate the quality of the training and the quality of the education that comes out of LeTourneau.”

Ethan is a beneficiary of that education too, and it’s served him well. “It’s the foundation for everything I’ve done in aviation. From the tailwheel training to the general management skills to the people skills and work ethic that have brought me to the place I am today.”

LeTourneau Aviation’s legacy of workplace preparation and readiness runs deep. A tradition of producing qualified, exceptional graduates of ingenuity and integrity. We heard it over and over from the many alumni at Oshkosh. “LeTourneau’s training is bar-none.” “When I got my first job, I was more prepared than my coworkers who had been there for years.” “Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve had more knowledge than my counterparts.”

The callings and career choices within aviation may vary, but the heart is the same: making an eternal impact in unique settings, locations, and relationships. And no one equips students to do that like LeTourneau.

Associate Dean of the College of Aviation & Aeronautical Science, Sean Fortier, sums it up: “It's incredible to see our alumni go out and impact the world. We have a saying in the College of Aviation, ‘The sunset never sets on LeTourneau University's College of Aviation’ because we have people around the globe serving God both in missions and in the corporate and commercial world.

Uplifting Female Aviators

The Air Race Classic is an all-female, 2400-mile, cross country flight over four days where each team tries to beat its own time handicap. Pilots range in age from 17 to 90 years old across a wide variety of backgrounds, including a significant number of collegiate teams. This summer, the LeTourneau team placed sixth among those colleges, led by students Marina Decker, Sadie Morgan, and Mckenzie Fessler, flight instructor Claire Key, and faculty advisor Laura Laster. The race is a pioneering event for women in aviation, and Fessler was particularly inspired: “Growing up, I saw aviation as something that only guys did and as super unobtainable in my eyes. But, this experience has shown me that if I can do it, then any female pilot can do it.”

Ethan Pierce, '13

We caught up with Ethan at Oshkosh, and he even took us up in Miss Virginia, a 1943 C47 that was restored by Dynamic Aviation and recently flew in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Miss Virginia flew in the Airventure air show and was on display with other vintage planes throughout the week.