It’s like a golden drop from the sun, a falling amber glitter as it goes from one sapphire background to the other with just the slightest of splashes as it skims across the water. A small wake ripples out from the seaplane’s floats toward the edge of the bay. You can’t tell from the shoreline, but the student pilot, floating now in the middle of Grand Traverse Bay, is grinning like a Cheshire cat. The plane is the favored baby of the fleet, a 1960s-era Super Cub on floats that started out as pieces in a box, painstakingly assembled after a beloved flight instructor’s mysterious disappearance over Lake Michigan. Today, the seaplane is perhaps the most recognizable icon of the little known, but highly sophisticated Northwestern Michigan College Aviation program. NMC’s 16 other aircraft, mostly Cessnas and Pipers, crisscross the northern Michigan skies more than 300 days a year. Their undulating hum and low-flying bellies prompt inquisitive gazes from the ground, but it is the little-known instructors inside the cockpit who are the real stars of NMC Aviation. They took over a program that was nearly defunct and turned it into one of the most respected aviation programs in the country.

NMC’s cadre of flight instructors range tremendously in age and experience, in part the result of an instructional approach that puts students in the air right at the beginning of their freshman year and then elevates them to flight instructors by junior year. Balancing out the fresh faces coming out of the two-year flight program are the semi-retired professionals who bring exceptional experience and expertise. Some instructors are former U.S. military “Top Guns”; others are businessmen with decades of experience in the air over Northern Michigan skies. The talent base attracts more talent, and NMC has become one of a few schools in the country that doesn’t have a problem hiring instructors. But it wasn’t always this way.

The Visionary

When Bill Donberg retired to his home on Torch Lake after 30 years with Dow Chemical, the long-time pilot and aviation enthusiast didn’t even know NMC had an aviation program. It was the early 2000’s and Donberg was looking at flight instructor positions all over the country. A friend told him about NMC and he applied for a flight instructor opening.

Bill Donberg, NMC Aviation

Bill Donberg, NMC Aviation

But the program was at a fork in the road. Recruitment was at an all-time low, the fleet of aircraft was antiquated, and the program was draining NMC’s limited resources. Aviation everywhere was struggling as gas prices soared and airlines lost money. There was talk of shuttering NMC’s program altogether, but Donberg—not able to ignore his high level corporate experience in both finance and management—saw real potential. He convinced the school’s leadership to tour top aviation programs around the country before deciding. With the support of incoming president Tim Nelson and Vice President of Lifelong and Professional Learning’s Marguerite Cotto, Donberg helped to hand pick Aaron Cook as the new director of aviation, and the tide started to turn.

Cook sold the entire NMC fleet and cut a deal with Cessna to change out the fleet every year. Armed with ever-new planes, NMC’s flight program was soon on the cutting edge of Cessna’s avionics. Cook revised the maintenance structure, personally undertook recruitment, introduced Unmanned Aerial Studies (UAS or drones) into credited courses, and sold a brand new, highly efficient and streamlined course schedule to the FAA.

In 2010 Cook, Donberg and Tony Sauerbrey, who ran the UAS department, started exploring new business opportunities within the burgeoning civilian drone sector. Aetos LLC was born and soon was the first company in the nation to receive airspace approval to fly drones in the petrochemical industry. Aetos’ client list in the petrochemical field expanded rapidly and came to include Exxon Mobil, Phillips 66, Dow, and Eastman Chemical. All the while, NMC was offering students in its trailblazing UAS program front-row seats to cutting-edge technology with incredible results for real-world drone application.

In late 2015, Aetos was purchased by MISTRAS Group, and Cook and Sauerbrey stayed with the group, moving to Texas. Again, Donberg was critical in helping to choose a program leader: current director, Alex Bloye. “Alex was the right person at the right time,” says Donberg. He credits Bloye with moving the program forward and having the vision to also explore new directions.

“Other big programs have a lot of resources,” says Donberg. “But we are different because we are mid-sized and personal. We thrive on what it takes to teach people to fly. It’s a personal, connected relationship with every single student. We turn out the best pilots in the country, no doubt.”

Donberg’s passion for the NMC Aviation Department is apparent in everything he does. “The school is where my heart is,” says Donberg who also serves as a board member for Pure Water for the World, on the TC Rotary board and as part of the NMC Foundation. “You know, if I ever had to just choose one thing, it would always be flight instruction. I’ve never had so much fun in my whole life.”

Al Laursen (center), with students, NMC Aviation program

Al Laursen (center), with students, NMC Aviation program

The Navigator

Some may say Al Laursen is the gateway into the NMC Aviation program. As the Enrollment and Student Advisor for NMC’s Aviation program, he is placed squarely in the middle of every student’s flight school experience and tasked with facilitating the process. A retired B-52 bomber pilot (whose passion for northern Michigan began at KI Sawyer Air Force Base, in Marquette), Laursen’s military career included crafting flight guidelines for the United States Air Force out of a highly secured office in the Pentagon.

After retiring and deciding to put down roots in northern Michigan, Laursen thought it would be fun to be an air ambulance pilot, but instead found himself flying for a charter company out of Cherry Capital Airport. The hours were long, though, and his heart wasn’t in it, so in 2007 when an opportunity opened at NMC’s developing aviation program, he jumped.

Laursen credits his ability and reputation as a problem-solver and student advocate with earning him, as he says with characteristic modesty, “a certain amount of credibility in the industry.” During his military career, he was on the ground floor as the Air Force worked with the FAA to create a framework of regulations for drones in the civilian world. That was from 2004 to 2007. Meanwhile, in Northern Michigan, NMC was developing a drone program not matched by any other two-year college and graduating a workforce primed for an industry in its infancy.

Now, Laursen lends his background in understanding the intersection between UAS policy and trends, to an industry he says is entering its “toddler stage.” There’s not much an NMC student can throw at him that he can’t figure out. And for the self-proclaimed introvert, this one-on-one mentorship is where the spark is ignited and his commitment to ensuring each student finds success is legendary.

NMC’s multi-faceted aviation program encompasses a burgeoning professional flight program, leading-edge drone engineering, distinctive international exchanges, and experimental immersion studies that, as an example, weave together MSU agricultural students, robots, and pilot studies. “Part of my job is to research our competition,” says Laursen, who compares programs’ scope, price, size, and staffing. “I have never found another school who can do what we can. You are not going to find this level of expertise across the board.”

The Generals

Retired Brigadier General Scott Dennis was born and raised in Elk Rapids, a small-town boy who came back home after a 30-year military career including thousands of hours in the air as an F-16 command pilot, running the Weapons Fighter School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada (think Top Gun), commanding Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, (the largest NATO base in the world) as well as presiding over the Shock and Awe campaign during President George W. Bush’s surge into Baghdad, Iraq.

Retired Major General Brian Bishop

Dennis’s experience in flying, instructing, commanding and managing would be hard to beat anywhere in the world, but NMC boasts not only his storied career but also that of Retired Major General Brian Bishop who, at one point, was lead pilot and commander of the USAF Thunderbird Squadron (there is even a Thunderbird Brian Bishop Action Figure). Bishop directed USAF military operations in both South Korea and Iraq as Wing Commanders and served on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He led the USAF humanitarian relief mission in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

For both Dennis and Bishop, who have flown, instructed and led some of the most elite aircraft and squadrons in the world, NMC Aviation’s program is exceptional. Indeed, Bishop says he would hold the program up to any of the other top programs in the country. “NMC can do what they do because of their core cadre of instructors,” says Bishop. “They see themselves more as a family of instructors, than as a group of professors at a university.”

Dennis compares the mentality at NMC to one of his fundamental lessons as an F-16 student during Academy: be incredible; be humble; and be approachable. Inherent in that motto is not only a passion and proficiency for flying, but a relatability and mentor-like attitude to teach the skill. Dennis calls NMC Aviation the perfect mix of a school structure, a professional aviation program, and a mentorship-driven community.

“They are fully energized and excited about being there. It’s an extremely high quality of instruction for a fraction of the cost with a lot of personal care and attention,” says Bishop, who is often found teaching spin maneuvers in the Decathlon aerobatic plane or water landings in the seaplane. Whether accelerating through 600 knots in an F-16 or cruising at 90 knots in the seaplane, Bishop’s passion for flying is as obvious as his love of Northern Michigan. “It’s like flying over Tortola,” he says comparing the beauty of NoMi to the Virgin Islands. “Then try doing it upside down!”

Bishop notes that even the FAA has recently held up NMC’s program as the standard. Certainly, the FAA has granted NMC noteworthy exemptions from standard flight programs in a nod to the quality-controlled yet streamlined course work. The aviation program is also the only one in Michigan to have self-examining authority and one of only a few in the country.

Part of NMC’s syllabus includes 12 course work hours of “something different” e.g.: the decathlon or the seaplane. Most programs have students gain experience in one to two airplanes, whereas NMC requires flight experience in four to five aircraft. In an ever more automated era when pilots are basically cockpit managers, these raw training aircraft give students invaluable experience with heightened stick and rudder skills without reliance on advanced technology. While NMC’s state of the art avionics speak to their belief in cutting edge equipment, both Bishop and Dennis are intensely supportive of the school’s approach that the pilot must always fly the plane and never the reverse.

The Prodigy

Ryan Ferris

Ryan Ferris always knew he wanted to be a pilot. There were no aviators in his family, but when he took an aviation course at his Kalamazoo high school, there was no looking back. Western Michigan University’s flight program may have been the obvious choice, but he couldn’t help but consider other top programs in the country: University of North Dakota and Embry Riddle. But all it took was a quick visit to Traverse City for his mind to be made up. NMC Aviation was unique—the size, quality, price … and they put students in the air right away, mapping out a schedule for Ferris that gave him all his ratings in two years as well as the ability to reach the FAA-mandated 1,500 hours of experience in four to five years through flight instruction to new pilots.

This accelerated pace is what really sets NMC Aviation apart in Ferris’s eyes: “NMC gave me a real advantage to where I got into the pipeline way ahead of the curve,” he says.

In January 2017 Ferris assumed the principal role of Chief Pilot at Envoy Air (formerly American Eagle), based out of NYC’s La Guardia Airport, which means he now manages over 250 captains and first officers. He is 26. His ascension has been labeled unprecedented, and while Ferris says some of it was timing, he credits much of his rise to leadership skills instilled at NMC. “What makes this position unique is that every day there is something new, something you haven’t faced before. You have to find a solution. NMC really pushed that critical thinking concept. That is what I do every day. It’s not always a black and white answer, and it often requires being really creative. That’s where NMC really prepared me.”

The newly appointed Chief Pilot of Envoy Air (and NMC Alum) is now in charge of hiring new pilots, and he says he’d trust an NMC-educated pilot above any other program. “NMC prepares their students exceptionally well.”

The Globalizer

As a young Brit, Steve Ursell idolized his uncle— a captain for British Airways. But his poor vision pushed him instead into a decade of real estate development in London. Then, he visited a friend in Traverse City, and the rest, as they say, is history. Now, Ursell is the head of International Aviation Programs at NMC after he founded an exchange program concept that brings students to NMC’s Aviation program from all over the world. Take, for instance, a University of Manchester Aeronautical Engineering student’s typical experience. Part of the UK University’s syllabi does include “flight,” but only as a passenger, never with the pull of the yoke between their own hands or the dip of the wing at their bidding. They are taught to make ice cream without ever tasting it.

After getting his own private pilot’s license through NMC, Ursell saw an opportunity to offer a flight course to UK aviation engineers. The NMC Flight Test Course was born.

“We are the only flight school to have these [UK university] partnerships,” says Ursell. For most of the international students, it is their first time ever to the United States. They are awestruck by the water, the beaches, and Sleeping Bear Dunes. They bike to Front Street, kick back at Little Fleet and are blown away by the Cherry Festival. The Fourth of July, that most all-American of holidays is often their favorite, says Ursell. Some students—the lucky ones who can get private loans, because school loans don’t cover flight training—even return, finish their degrees, get their commercial ratings, serve as flight instructors, and even marry NMC sweethearts.

When Ursell was first introduced to NMC Aviation, the variety of newer aircraft and the G1000’s glass cockpit impressed him, but he knew it was the size and personality of the flight program that was the real key to a successful international program—a customized, personal experience perfect for international students to thrive. And thrive they do.

Stefan Bedoe came from his small town in Wales for a two-week experience course in 2012 as part of his bachelor’s degree. He was hooked. Back in the UK, Bedoe worked and saved for nearly three years to get back to Michigan. New Year’s Eve 2014, Bedoe moved to Traverse City and completed all his ratings with remarkable dedication: private, instrument, commercial, CFI and CFII, one after another, becoming a flight instructor to new pilots both American and international in late 2016.

This year, nearly 30 students from eight different countries will descend onto NMC for the aviation programs offered. Little community college though it is, NMC is on a global stage, says Director Bloye. He sees NMC sweatshirts on campuses all over the world.

The Drone Master

Eight years ago, Rob Dreer was in a dusty command center in Mosul, Iraq. He had a bird’s-eye view over one of the largest and most complex cities in a country erupting with violence. Boots planted firmly on the ground, he peered down onto a well-traveled convoy route looking for insurgents planting IED’s—comms at the ready to warn ground troops. After 15 months in the dust, Dreer came home.

He got out of the military but couldn’t leave the world of UAS or aviation behind. He turned to NMC for his next chapter and soon received his manned aviation degree and clearance to become a flight instructor. But drones were still in his blood. It was 2015 and the civilian side of the unmanned aerial industry was picking up speed. Dreer was granted one of the very first exemptions by the FAA for a commercial drone operator’s license and started exploring different commercial drone applications, both inside and outside NMC.

Before aviation, Dreer describes himself as a lost soul. Now, he is anything but—finding himself at the center of NMC’s UAS program as well as the Northern Michigan commercial drone business as Assistant Chief UAS Pilot/Instructor at NMC, co-owner of Zero Gravity (previously Cherry Capital Drones) and a founding member of SharedSky.

(More About Drones in the Northern Michigan Marketplace)

“Even though the drone is just a platform to collect data, and the sensors used to collect that data are paramount, UAS is still an aviation industry,” says Dreer. “So the oversight and emphasis on safety can’t be lost.”

NMC’s mix of experience is crucial in the program’s strategy of flying and teaching the best commercial drone applications and flight operation practices. The UAS program boasts some of the most advanced unmanned aerial aircraft in the country: top tier helicopters, including the $90,000 military-grade Aeryon Sky Ranger used by petro-chemical inspection companies, the MI State Police and Aetos—all organizations that require an all-weather, rugged, and fully capable platform. There is the heavy 54.5-pound Agras octocopter used for precision aerial agricultural spraying and the first such drone to be used in the U.S. Then there is the fixed-wing light foam Ebee aircraft—an aerial-mapping drone that takes high-resolution imagery capable of spotting cherry leaf spot in the orchards of Leelanau County. Complex platforms are also available to students and speak to the long-term vision of NMC’s program: the “tiger shark” and Penguin B and C are typically used for long-range reconnaissance, taking off on a catapult and coming down with a parachute recovery (flight can last up to 20 hours). NMC’s Penguin C was the third one in production in the world and the only one of its kind to be in a college flight program.

For the up to 60 new students a year at NMC’s UAS program, this experience is invaluable in order to showcase to potential employers a breadth of skill unmatched in any other college program. NMC’s clout is not just in the breadth of systems’ experience they give their students, but more importantly, in the innovative approach of UAS immersion as an academic addition to any number of other areas of study. Getting a UAS degree is like getting a degree in pencil, says Director Bloye, but the approach of teaching drones as a tool is unique. “We are partnering with other industries to train drone operators specific to their industries, which is not the traditional academic track,” he says.

Take, for instance, Michigan State University’s Institute of Agricultural Technology program, which handpicked NMC to teach MSU students UAS studies through a brand-new pilot program in 2017. Brian Matchett oversees all agricultural programs at MSU and he underscores how out-of-the-box this approach is: taking agriculture students and giving them UAS as a tool, versus taking a drone student, who doesn’t speak the agricultural language or find himself as invested in the industry, and asking him to do ag research. The impetus came in early 2016 as MSU’s Fruit and Vegetable Crop Management course, NMC Aviation, and the Research Station in Leelanau County all collaborated on solutions to identify Cherry Leaf Spot in the largest cherry growing region in the country.

Matchett says that MSU’s acknowledgement of a community college’s expertise in a field of study and the decision to then partner with them is something he has never seen before. MSU students (enrolled in crop production, crop management or viticultural studies) are currently in the midst of a 4-credit course developed by NMC instructors that includes building a quad copter from the ground up, a 12-week online course culminating in the FAA-mandated remote pilot certification exam, followed by a two-week intensive flight training segment with exposure to aircraft, sensors and ag system applications.

For Dreer, the public and private interest and concern surrounding UAV is paramount to the ongoing growth of the industry, especially in Northern Michigan. One of the goals of SharedSky is the creation of common community-based standards everyone can abide by. Yes, the commercial applications are innumerable and exciting, shares Dreer, but above all, the focus is on good stewardship as responsible members of the community. As far as his passion for drones? Dreer credits, in part, his love of both technology and the freedom he feels from the view from the sky. “My mom always told me I’d never get anywhere playing video games, but, the coordination and dexterity have definitely been a huge advantage!” Little did his mother know, the future remote controls would give her son.

The Captain

Alex Bloye, NMC drone program

Alex Bloye, NMC drone program

Alex Bloye, Director of NMC Aviation, has been at the helm for only the last two years, but as a 2003 NMC alum, it is a familiar place. Bloye, who ran Eastern Michigan University’s flight program for five years, is well equipped to take NMC’s growing reputation in an ever-changing industry to the next level. “I want us to break the mold of community college,” he says, describing new developments in alternative fuels, electric pilots, and the challenges of training a generation of pilots that are getting younger and younger. Venture learning is key to Bloye’s approach: allowing and encouraging student pilots to take passengers, fly out of state and even fly in the clouds—none of which typical flight programs would condone. It’s real world experience to give each pilot the tools necessary to be the very best. “You cannot automate what a pilot does,” says Bloye.

NMC Aviation is an intentionally small, academy-type program and not designed to be an airline feeder. Regardless, the seemingly insurmountable forecasted pilot shortage is having a direct effect. (Boeing estimates over 600,000 new pilots will be needed in the next 20 years to meet global demand) “They are recruiting like sports stars,” says Bloye, referring to regional airlines courting NMC program grads. Entry level salaries have tripled from even five years ago, sign-on bonuses are upward of 20K to 30K, and many new pilots are incentivized with captain upgrades in three to five years instead of the standard ten.

Ferris, as Chief Pilot of Envoy Air, now has a front row seat to the changes, acknowledging: “They could drain all the regional airlines and still be short at the major airline level. If I were a student, I would look at this as a huge opportunity. The next 10 years are going to be huge for pilots.”

They also will be huge for NMC. This year marks the 50th anniversary of NMC’s Aviation program, but leadership is looking more forward than back, as the aviation program focuses on evolution and innovation including offering more scholarships, advanced academic program courses, improved facilities and developing its fleet.

From community learners to international bridge-builders, pioneering innovation to stripped-down fundamentals, highly experienced dedication to unmatched camaraderie, the NMC Aviation Program promises even new heights in the years to come. It will be a flight to watch.

See Northern Michigan From the Air:

Photo(s) by Taylor Brown