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West Point cadets train at UND

Cadet Christina West inspects the blades of her helicopter before a training flight Wednesday afternoon. West is at UND under a contract with West Point to train helicopter pilots. (John Stennes/Grand Forks Herald)1 / 2
West Point Cadet Stephen Kinney goes throught a preflight checklist before a training flight Wednesday. (John Stennes/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 2

GRAND FORKS - Summer break from college is usually a time for students to go home, relax or take in a vacation. For 18 U.S. Military Academy cadets, it's a chance to cram in a four-week training session at UND that will give them a head start on earning a helicopter pilot's license.

The cadets started a combination of ground school, a lecture-style class that teaches them the regulations and basics, and an hour of hands-on training five days a week. They're about a week and a half into the course and already are getting more comfortable taking the flight controls from the instructors.

UND made an agreement in 2003 to train West Point and Army ROTC cadets to fly Army helicopters and has since trained 179 students.

Chicago native Christina West, 20, said she's on the parachute team at West Point and wanted to experience flying the aircraft that she's leapt from. "It could be fun to learn to fly one if I jump out of one," she said, describing her initial thought process.

"Flying it is harder; jumping is pretty easy," she said. "It's given me a lot more respect for the pilots."

West tried the program after a neighbor at West Point told her about their experiences at UND last year. It's been a good fit -- West plans to go into aviation as her eventual military career choice once she graduates in 2011.

"I really like it," she said. "It's a great feeling being in the air."

She hadn't considered aviation much before, she said, but this program helped change her mind. "When things come up, you just gotta take them and grab them," she said.

From scared to confident

Travis French, flight instructor for UND aerospace, said the cadets' training in Grand Forks isn't enough to earn private licenses. But when they leave, they'll have more than 20 hours of dual flight time, meaning flights with instructors, and an hour of solo time.

That gives them a head start toward getting a license, which would require another 20 to 30 hours of flight time. He said last year's 17 cadets all branched into aviation after completing the course.

"They have a pretty good in with this very good program that they have here," he said.

French said it's difficult to get the knack of helicopter flight -- pilots must operate two foot pedals along with the two hand controls, and the lefthand control also adjusts throttle by twisting it. Add to that the fact that helicopters have "a glide ratio slightly better than a brick," and it's a complicated thing to handle, he said.

"Pretty much this thing wants to commit suicide the whole time," he said.

Hovering is the hardest thing to master, he said, and sometimes, the students get a little out of control. But he's been an instructor for about two years and said he knows when to step in to keep everyone safe.

French said his favorite part of the job is watching the students grow from scared novices to flying solo in about a month. "They're psyched about it," he said.

The helicopters get only 10 or 15 miles away from the airport during training and reach a top speed of about 100 mph at a maximum altitude of about 700 feet. Trainees in Grand Forks have a handicap to overcome -- the frequently strong winds that can make flight difficult or impossible.

"It's like trying to learn how to walk with someone pushing you around," he said.

Steven Kinney, originally from Boston, said he was somewhat interested in "going aviation" but never considered being a helicopter pilot. UND's program got his attention while searching for some summer training.

"It's quite impressive," he said. "I didn't even know anything like this existed."

His goal was to figure out if he wanted to make the big commitment of choosing aviation as his career, and this program is perfect for that.

"What if you go aviation and find out you don't really like it?" he said.

Flying one of the Schweizer H-300s that UND uses for training is tough, he said, but is good experience because it's smaller and easier to handle than the larger military helicopters. Still, he has to do "10 things at once" and it takes a lot of concentration, he said.

Kinney was hopeful that with a little more time, he'll be able to relax and let flight operations come more naturally. He already has realized operating an airplane is a walk in the park compared to maneuvering a helicopter.

"Planes fly themselves," he said. "Helicopters, you're always fighting with to keep in the air."