With flying colors: Student takes lead in repainting aircraft
As if the industrious fulfillment of her proud Pennsylvania College of Technology days isn’t a sufficient bequest, Kate M. Ruggiero punctuated her academic performance with a larger-than-life mic drop: impressively taking the lead in repainting a single-engine Cessna 175C airplane donated to the Lumley Aviation Center eight years ago.
Ruggiero earned an associate degree in aviation technology from Penn College in December, crossing the stage in a COVID-delayed ceremony on May 15, and will move from Easton to Michigan in early July to start a job as an aircraft paint specialist – working on corporate and private jets for Duncan Aviation in Battle Creek.
Employment is but the latest exciting step along Ruggiero’s bustling path.
She was an award-winning campus leader and recipient of multiple industry scholarships, a Presidential Student Ambassador and a Theta Phi Alpha sorority sister. And she’s a self-described “Daddy’s girl” who gleefully tag-teamed the teardown of an airplane carburetor during an early visit to Penn College with her father.
Painting is Ruggiero’s foundational passion, but airplanes weren’t always her palette. As a student at Easton Area High School and the Career Institute of Technology, she took automotive courses – including classes in collision and refinishing technology.
“I started doing welding, sheet-metal fabrication, spray-painting and filling in dents. I wanted to just broaden my skills,” she said. “Pennsylvania College of Technology caught my eye. I actually toured there originally for the collision repair program and automotive business management.”
Paternal research would help redefine her career path, revealing that the college also has an attractive aviation program and moving a daughter’s focus from wheeled transport to the winged variety.
“Ever since I was little, my dad took me to a local airpark that's about five minutes from my house. They had fly-ins all the time, so he would take me there as a little girl, plus to different aviation museums,” Ruggiero said. “He always had a passion for aviation and really supported the industry, and he carried that down to me.”
She and father Mike visited the Lumley Aviation Center in Montoursville, where they met instructor Michael R. Robison and other faculty members, and followed up with a “shadow day” that provided a more intensive look at the campus’s instructional labs.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Kate while she was exploring college majors,” said William F. Stepp III, associate professor of aviation. “She impressed me by her depth of research and maturity.”
The day had an impact on Ruggiero, as well.
“I went into a carburetors class, and my dad was actually able to be there with me for the whole day, which was awesome. He loved it!” she said. “He always wanted to work on planes, be affiliated with them somehow, so he was like a little kid in a candy store just as much as me. Mr. Stepp (William IV, assistant professor of aviation maintenance) handed us a carburetor and some tools and said, ‘Here. Have at it. Take it apart. If you need any help, let me know.’
“Dad's a jack of all trades – cars, trucks, diesel, campers, he’s really into motorcycles. He can do it all 'cause he's a mechanic, but I'd never done anything like that before,” she said. “So that was a lot of fun, and being able to interact with the students and meet more teachers, that really encouraged me to go to Penn College.”
The summer after her first year, Ruggiero did an internship at Lancaster Aero in Smoketown, a maintenance, paint and body shop owned by Kendall N. Horst, a May 1997 graduate of the college’s aviation technology major. Horst had just hired a specialist at his Lancaster County business, so Ruggiero didn’t get the full hands-on experience.
“I got an inside look at what it’s like to paint aircraft, though,” she said. “I did some composite repairs and got to sit in the paint booth as the new guy was spraying, looking at his techniques. And I got to help lay out paint designs, too.”
The paint bug would resurface in Ruggiero’s final semester last fall, when a three-credit physics survey course was the only remaining stop on her road to that two-year degree.
“I didn’t really want to leave the Aviation Center yet – I still wanted to be involved there – and I was studying and testing for my Airframe and Powerplant certification,” she said. “So I asked if I would be able to paint one of the aircraft because I really wanted that experience beneath my belt.”
Asked … and answered.
She was readily assigned to refurbish the Cessna, donated in Spring 2013 by the alumni-laden Gable family.
Ruggiero’s ability to prioritize, prepare and perform – from becoming Federal Aviation Administration-certified to finalizing the instructional aircraft’s makeover to graduating – is no surprise to her faculty mentors.
“She is a conscientious, friendly and honest person who ensures all tasks are completed correctly, on time and to the highest standards without compromising safety,” Stepp III said. “She can always be trusted to do her best and seek help or guidance if needed.”
Ruggiero and Grace M. Snyder, of Lebanon, who graduated May 15 with a bachelor’s degree in aviation maintenance technology, busily occupied themselves with the Cessna during the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters. (Snyder took some time away from the work early this year to concentrate on her senior project, then jumped back in to help with the rebuild and final prep for spraying. She is now employed by Fly Advanced, Lititz.)
“From September to December, all that Grace and I were doing was complete disassembly – bringing it down to the fuselage,” she explained about their meticulous game plan. “Typically, we don't take off the wings; we don't completely disassemble a tail. We just take off all the flight controls, and then we take off the cowling, and then the wheel pants.
“You generally don’t take off the major components, but we did that for the Cessna because we thought it would be a lot easier. We could then go in there for corrosion control, really get an inside look and see if there were any major repairs that needed to be done.
Fortunately, everything was in decent condition.”
The duo used a chemical stripper to more easily remove the plane’s greenish hue, jokingly characterized by classmates as “dying salmon,” Ruggiero said.
“We put that on and let it sit for a couple of hours, sometimes overnight, and that chewed up the paint and brought it into a big, gooey ball,” she recalled. “Then we just scraped it all off, and that brought it down to bare metal. Once all the paint was completely removed from the flight surfaces and the fuselage, I went in there with sandpaper and a little Jitterbug sander and got rid of all the corrosion so that there was only clean metal.”
Ruggiero also replaced all of the hardware, a nod to the thoroughness of the enterprise, and realigned inspection panels and other pieces for a professional, uniform look.
She and Snyder searched online for “blue Cessna paint design” and selected one of the first results that were displayed. They modified the look slightly, and opted for a Wildcat- friendly mix of blue, gray and white paint. The result, it goes without saying, is magnificent – but visitors to the Lumley Aviation Center are saying it anyway.
“We came to recruit aviation technicians for New World Aviation because the curriculum and the technology at Penn College help support our workforce by giving students and graduates the skills they need to be leaders in our industry,” said Darrell Frey, president of New World Aviation in Allentown, a Penn College Corporate Tomorrow Maker. “Seeing what was happening with the Cessna was a pleasant surprise and truly demonstrates, not only the level of talent and skill of Ms. Ruggiero and her team, but their passion for the industry and the craft.”
Frey was equally impressed that the college attracts such enthusiastic young people into its program, producing a high-quality outcome that bodes well for aviation’s future.
“I remember meeting Kate and Grace side-by-side in the paint booth with big smiles,” he said. “You could tell they loved the opportunity to learn the paint process.”
When Ruggiero was selected in December to receive the President’s Award for leadership and service to her alma mater, her nominator all but predicted her lasting influence.
“Despite being a student from a satellite campus and an off-campus resident, she has immersed herself into the campus community by being engaged in leadership and social opportunities,” the Admissions Office employee wrote. “Her continued desire to give back to the campus and serve her peers through her involvement is inspiring.”
Ruggiero matches that effusive praise with pure humility, making sure to credit the nearly 30 students who lent a hand – a just-doing-my-job attitude that will serve her new employer well: “I’m just really glad that I could leave a little bit of a legacy.”
For more information about Penn College’s aviation majors, call the School of Engineering Technologies at 570-327-4520.
For more about the college, a national leader in applied technology education, email the Admissions Office or call toll-free 800-367-9222.
– Photos provided (unless otherwise noted)
A 'thank you' from the project leader
The following is a list of all of the students who have had their hands on the Cessna 175C in some way:
Roger D. Bohner Jr., Montoursville; Jared A. Bussard, Greencastle; Matthew S. Carlsen, Putnam Valley, N.Y.; Samuel M. Carpetino, Patterson, N.Y.; Tyler J. Chojnicki, Buffalo, N.Y.; Corey R. Chucci, Williamsport; David W. Coder, Centre Hall; Jason T. Cofrancesco, Branford, Conn.; Sam Cole, Peckville; Mark A. Coppola, Bellefonte; Dalton S. Davidson, Coatesville; Evan F. Engelhard, Newark Valley, N.Y.; Lucas J. Farda, Stroudsburg; Robby J. Ford, Bellefonte; Mitchell G. Gordon, Mount Wolf; Tommy E. Kratosky, Harrisburg; Alexander J. Langeveld, Belmar, N.J.; Wesley A. Lippincott, Bedford; Teagan M. Low, Richmond, Vt.; Sean McGovern, Middletown; Anthony E, Naugle, Schellsburg; Dennis M. O’Donnell, Williamsport; Shiv Patel, Union, N.J.; Kevin Pradel, Belleville, N.J.; Joel M. Romig, Bloomsburg; Sebastian E. Smith, Wellsboro; Matthew N. Spory, Scranton; Brandon P. Thompson, Waldorf, Md.; and Kory Yarima, Pottsville. (Most are enrolled in the four-year aviation maintenance technology major; Cofrancesco, Cole and Romig are pursuing associate degrees in aviation technology; and Gordon and McGovern are working toward their aviation maintenance technician certificate. Engelhard, Langeveld, Spory and Thompson are recent graduates.)
Whether it was helping move parts and the plane, sanding surfaces, disassembling components, painting, finishing a small repair, completing FAA makeup time for their course, or just hanging out to witness the process – all of their help went a long way throughout the fall and spring semesters to get the Cessna where it is today.
It was a pleasure to have a few of those students come into the paint booth, ask me to teach them how to spray and see how well they did. One of the students even donated landing-gear tires from a flying club he is a part of. Special thanks to Roger Bohner Jr., who came in with his camera and took an enormous number of pictures, all so that Matthew Spory, Grace Snyder, he and I could save them into a scrapbook. There are not enough words to explain how grateful I am to have worked with these students; I know they will continue to do amazing things in the aviation program and in the field.
Tom Burdick, our toolroom attendant at the Aviation Center, helped me tremendously in obtaining all of the replacement hardware and components needed for the Cessna.
I would like to extend a final "Thank you" to all of my professors at the Aviation Center: Bill Stepp III, Bill Stepp IV, Mike Robison, Matthew Krepps, Mike Damiani and Walter Gower. They have all provided me with an excellent and fun education during my time in Airframe and Powerplant School, pushing me to do my best, helping me whenever needed, giving me endless support as a student and continuing to do so as I enter the industry.
Kate M. Ruggiero
An online photo inspired the paint design for the college's Cessna 175.
To ensure adequate preparation before applying paint, the surfaces of the entire aircraft had to be stripped down to base metal or fiberglass. Here, the flaps are covered in paint stripper and wrapped in plastic to keep the area moist enough for the chemicals to work properly. The paint would be wiped off after anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours, leaving a clean metal surface. On parts that are made out of composite material, the paint needed to be sanded off by hand.
Ruggiero has a "fin-tastic time" separating the dorsal fin from the tail assembly.
Snyder, Engelhard and Langeveld prepare to remove the right wing.
Some surfaces required multiple applications of chemical stripper. Following removal of the wings and tail section, this is how the fuselage looked – half original paint, half nearly down to bare metal.
The fuselage, after all of the old paint was thoroughly stripped
While most of the Cessna is constructed of aluminum, the landing gear is made of spring steel. When the paint was removed, the steel was covered in a black conversion coating to prevent surface rust from forming.
Most of the screws attaching the fuel tank cover were corroded, so Ruggiero used an air hose and rivet gun to forcefully turn and remove them. The screws, along with much more of the plane's hardware, were replaced.
The longest part of the project – hours upon hours of painstaking labor – was removing corrosion that had formed beneath the paint, partially with abrasive pads and in some areas with 400-grit sandpaper.
The next step was to apply Alumiprep and Alodine conversion coatings to all of the panels, flight-control surfaces (ailerons, flaps, elevators, etc.), doors, fuselage and wings to prevent corrosion prior to the application of primer.
After long hours of prep work, primer was finally applied.
All of the surfaces coated in primer had to be sanded down, removing the glossiness so the topcoat could adhere. The design layout – drawn freehand by Ruggiero from multiple-angle photos of the paint scheme – can be seen in this photo of the reassembled fuselage, doors and tail section. Visible near the rear is the plane's "N-Number," a Federal Aviation Administration requisite. Snyder did "an amazing job," Ruggiero said, using The Dr. Welch Workshop: A Makerspace at Penn College on main campus to create a vinyl outline of the registration ID.
Once the white topcoat was completed, areas were masked off to be sprayed with blue paint.
After the blue topcoat was applied and all freshly painted areas covered, it was time to spray the gray accent stripe.
With the paint design completed on the fuselage, the Cessna 175C is ready for reassembly.
The hangar's scenic southern exposure sheds light on Matthew Spory, Roger Bohner and his son, Grace Snyder and Robby Ford as the group prepares to reattach the wings onto the fuselage.
In a cross-curricular collaboration within the School of Engineering Technologies, collision repair instructor Roy H. Klinger taught Ruggiero how to use the pressure pot system that she ultimately employed to spray the Cessna. Klinger brought her into the College Avenue Labs paint booth on main campus to spray practice panels and to apply primer to the belly panels of the A-6 Intruder, a plane recently moved from the Aviation Center to the Lycoming County Veterans Memorial Park. Parts of the A-6 were being worked on in the collision repair lab, and Ruggiero said she was fortunate enough to have a small part in the repair process.) She is pictured spraying primer with Dominic J. "D.J." Alleva, an automotive technology major from Downington, "who helped me out tremendously while I was in the lab."
"Katie Ruggiero & Grace Snyder/Fall 2020-Spring 2021" reads a decal that Snyder created in the college makerspace.
"There are not enough words to say how grateful I am to have such wonderful parents. I could not get where I am today without the love and support of Mike and Kim Ruggiero," Kate said. "They raised me to be kind, to work hard and to follow my dreams – no matter how big."