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UND aerospace ace Al Palmer takes a change of pace

UAS Director Al Palmer poses for a portrait in his office. Jesse Trelstad/ Grand Forks Herald

Al Palmer is no stranger to retiring, but this time he thinks it'll stick.

The 63-year-old has had ties to UND's aerospace programs for years, retiring in 2010 from his position as UND chief of flight operations and becoming director of UND's Center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems Research, Education and Training.

Now, due to his health, Palmer said he's retiring to spend time with his grandchildren and feed the deer on his property in western Grand Forks County.

"I'm not going to pass away any time soon but I just can't continue at the same pace I have been over the years," Palmer told the Herald.

Because it could take more than a month to find out if his application for medical retirement has been accepted, Palmer doesn't know exactly when he'll be leaving UND but is on sick leave until June 30.

Palmer said he is optimistic about the future of UND's UAS programs and is proud of the work he did while working as director.

"In my career that's a good one to end on," he said.

Bruce Smith, the dean of the UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, will also be retiring in June after about 15 years of leading the school. He said Palmer proved to be "indispensable" while serving as interim director for the UAS Center, which is why he was selected for the job permanently despite a national search.

"Instead of just being a placeholder, instead of just being there, he showed us he was the right guy for the job," Smith said.

Palmer began his career as an hourly flight instructor in 1978 and spent time in the U.S. Air Force. His flight instructor was Odegard, who urged Palmer to join the Air National Guard.

"He's one of those remarkable people who went from enlisted one stripe to one star as a general," Smith said. "That almost never happens."

But Palmer said now, after more than 10,000 flight hours, he's ready to bow out to someone younger.

"We do a really good job of mentoring our younger people and I have great hopes," he said. "Unmanned aircraft systems is an emerging technology. It's going to mean good things for North Dakota and for the University of North Dakota."

Palmer is a large part of the reason why UND's UAS programs have grown successfully, Smith said, adding Palmer was also key in implementing the SPECTRUM airline training program.

"When the center really needed a boost, Al comes as close as you can to being indispensable," Smith said.

According to Popular Science, UND was the first school in the nation to offer a four-year degree in unmanned aerial vehicle piloting in 2013.

"We've got a training program that has national and international recognition," Palmer said. "It's the best in the world and a lot of people worked really hard to make that happen."

Moving forward, Smith said the UAS center will likely be run through the Department of Aviation and Palmer's position won't be refilled, especially in light of budgetary constraints as UND looks at how to cut $9.5 million from its 2015-17 budget.

And while he's sad that he won't be flying anymore, Palmer said he is looking forward to feeding the deer on his property, noting he buys 200 lbs. of corn each week for them.

"I get so much joy in doing that," he said, laughing.

Anna Burleson

Anna Burleson is the higher education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald. She is a 2013 graduate of the University of South Dakota's Mass Communication program and is originally from Watertown, S.D. Contact her with story ideas or tips by phone, email or Twitter, all of which are listed below. Examples of her work can be accessed here.