Landing a Big One

by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday. Photos by Larry D. Kauffman.

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It emerged as a silvery blip to the east, scarcely discernible through the cloud cover above the Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville.

Watch videoPennsylvania College of Technology students lined the upper-level observation deck outside the Lumley Aviation Center with cell-phone cameras at the ready, while other invited guests ventured just outside the open hangar door, tempting raindrops for a peek at institutional history.

The speck grew ever larger on its approach, taking form and shape before the “A-ha” moment of recognition. After a flyby that brought smiles and cheers, the Boeing 727-200F impressively circled back for a landing, taxiing toward the waiting throng.

“I’m ready to start tearing things apart and seeing the inside of it!”

There, as its cargo doors were opened to welcome the crowds that easily fit within, it sat – the largest single equipment donation in the college’s near-century of existence, courtesy of FedEx Express.

“We are most grateful … for the donation of this aircraft,” President Davie Jane Gilmour said of Penn College’s partnership with the company.

“It will serve as a superb educational resource for students in our aviation majors within the School of Transportation Technology,” she added. “The complex flight controls, hydraulics, electrical and other systems will enable hands-on learning in areas that could only be simulated previously. This transport-category aircraft will help better prepare our students for productive careers in the commercial aviation industry.”

In conjunction with the arrival of the retired FedEx Express plane, several alumni – employees and retirees of FedEx – returned “home” to the Aviation Center, where they helped to remove the plane’s engines and install those that will be used for instruction.From that wispy dot above the horizon to its full 150,000-pound presence, large enough for an entire class to comfortably gather inside, the Boeing 727 aircraft entered the college’s instructional fleet March 28 after the final flight of its three-decade run.

“The FedEx donation means that we can have lab projects on systems only found on transport-sized aircraft,” said Colin W. Williamson, the college’s dean of transportation technology. “With the actual hands-on experience the students are getting and the exposure to FedEx maintenance procedures, it opens the door to employment with FedEx and other carriers with transport-sized aircraft.”

That career path was demonstrated by at least 16 Penn College alumni in five states – either employed by or retired from FedEx – who represent such diverse fields as aviation maintenance, forestry, computer information technology, broadcasting, carpentry, graphic communication, landscaping, electrical technology, management and welding.

Three of them accompanied the plane and/or helped “swap out” the propulsion engines for those that will be used for instruction – aviation graduates Robert L. Hoffman, ’85, and Marty A. Slautterback, ’78; and Walter I. Chesnut, ’74, a retiree with a degree in nursery management.

“I was very proud to be a part of the donation and giving something back to the school,” Slautterback said. “I’m glad the students will have a large aircraft with multiple systems to learn on.”

A look at the cockpit. The airplane’s complex flight controls, hydraulics, electrical and other systems will enable hands-on learning in areas that could only be simulated previously.At its simplest, the FedEx plane (which earlier handled passenger service for a commercial airline) is representative of the corporate giants that support Penn College’s students and sustain institutional survival. In the broader scope, it’s indicative of the many ways – small and not-so-small – that those partners find to support students.

And those students appreciate the generosity.

“With this, we can have a fully functioning engine, avionics, hydraulics,” one of them told a television news crew. “We can see what they’re supposed to do, not just what we’re told they’re supposed to do.”

“It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be,” added a classmate, interviewed beneath the fuselage of the hulking aircraft. “It’s going to be a great addition to the school. I’m ready to start tearing things apart and seeing the inside of it!”

Aviation students get a closer look during public tours of the plane.With more than 100 majors in eight academic schools, Penn College is blessed with support as varied as the people who routinely deliver it: equipment donations, scholarship endowments, travel expenses toward student competitions, internships and co-ops, training to keep faculty on the leading edge of instruction, and membership on corporate advisory committees.

Such relationships form a unique business model, successful from the institution’s birth as Williamsport Technical Institute, retraining veterans for a renewed and rightful place in the workforce; through its transition into Williamsport Area Community College; to its ongoing pre-eminence in technical education.

Benefactors feed the programs … that nurture the students … who are hired by the companies upon graduation … and give back to their communities a hundredfold.

Just ask the successful graduates who watched as the 727 took a long, looping path to its last landing. Sometimes, the optimal distance between two points is a full circle.

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