Despite the pandemic, and after a period of being shut down, students in UND’s flight training programs set a new record for hours spent in the air.

Students at the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences flew a total of 126,000 hours from July 1, 2020 to June 30, blowing well past the previous record of 110,000 hours set in 2013. Flight operations at UND were suspended from March through May last year, as the school responded to the coronavirus pandemic. When flight training resumed, students and instructors took back to the air with a new set of pandemic protocols.

“This flying hour milestone is a culmination of the hard work of all of our students, instructors, maintainers, line staff, and others,” said Robert Kraus, aerospace dean, in a UND news release. “Even more so, they have done it professionally and safely, even under pandemic restrictions.”

Jeremy Roesler, chief flight instructor at UND, said he knew the school was looking at a record setting year, in terms of flight hours. When flight operations resumed, students needed to get back in the air to make up for three months of lost flight time, and put their paths to graduation back on track. Students are now mostly caught up, Roesler said, which shows their determination to get back in the air. Teamwork played a key role in making that happen safely.

“There isn't one person or one department that is really responsible for this,” Roesler told the Herald. “It was just the fact that everybody came together and we tackled this challenge while there's a global pandemic going on, and I think that's what's really phenomenal about it.”

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The slowdown in commercial aviation meant flight instructors at UND didn’t leave to take jobs in the airline industry. More flight instructors were hired to help meet students’ training needs. Before the pandemic, the school averaged about 160. The number peaked at 245, to help as many as 1,400 students with their lessons. The number of flight instructors now sits at about 215. Some have left to take jobs in commercial aviation, which is trending back to pre-pandemic norms.

A mild winter in 2020 which continued into spring, also played a role in helping aerospace students set the new record for flight hours. Aviation students made up the bulk of the traffic at Grand Forks International Airport, which made the airport the busiest in the nation on more than one occasion.

And students and instructors got those hours done safely, and in a few different ways. On the health side, students adapted to COVID-19 mitigation protocols, including masking and sanitizing cockpits between flights. Brian Willis, director of aviation safety, said the rule-oriented nature of flight students and UND’s culture of safety, helped navigate the return to flying last summer, and the increase in hours.

“From our administration’s offices to students and instructors on the runway, safety is always the priority in how we make decisions,” Willis said.