In the months since Gorge Aviation Services took over management of the Hermiston Municipal Airport, the airport has expanded its services.
Flying lessons, on-site mechanics, internships, student field trips and other perks have been drawing more people to the airport and could be fostering some future aviation careers.
Previously, Hermiston’s plane owners were taking their machines outside of Hermiston for repairs and required annual inspections. Now they can get those services right at Hermiston’s airport.
Rolf Anderson Leirvik, airport manager, said not only are local pilots getting their airplanes fixed and inspected in Hermiston, but there are people flying in from cities in other parts of Oregon and southern Washington to have their planes seen by Ron Berg, the full-time mechanic and Leirvik’s partner in Gorge Aviation Services.
“Ron Berg has a great reputation and following, and people bring their planes to him because they like him so much,” Leirvik said.
He said the aviation industry has a shortage of mechanics, pilots, air traffic controllers, engineers, technicians, airport planners and other related careers, so Hermiston is lucky to have local mechanics.
“There is a tremendous need for those kinds of workers,” he said.
Gorge Aviation Services is trying to do its part to entice the younger generation to look into aviation careers. The airport just took on its first high school intern, and is hosting activities for teens to learn airplane repair skills.
Saige Melson, a senior at Hermiston High School, started her internship in January. She said she wants to be a pilot someday.
So far Melson has gotten a wide range of experience, from working with the mechanics to helping out in the offices. But her favorite so far has been getting to try out the flight simulator. She said it was harder than she thought it would be, particularly using the pedals that steer the plane while it is on the ground.
“The landing ... that was ... I may have run into a building,” she said sheepishly.
After getting to check out what day-to-day life at a small municipal airport is like and asking questions of the pilots who land there, Melson said she still wants to head to college and study aviation after she graduates.
“If anything, it’s opened my eyes to more things I could do,” she said.
Melson isn’t the only teen getting experience with aviation. The airport’s repair hangar opens its doors to any interested teenagers every Thursday from 6-9 p.m.
Soon Umatilla School District will start bussing kids to the airport on Thursday nights as part of its after-school STEM program, and Leirvik said he is working with Hermiston High School to set up something similar. Students who participate in the Thursday night sessions will learn how to take apart and rebuild an airplane engine, among other skills.
Some area middle schools have already taken field trips out to the airport in recent months. Adults can also check out the airport and learn more about aviation at the airport’s monthly breakfasts, where pilots and others with an interest in aviation are invited to gather at 8:30 a.m. on the last Saturday of every month.
Mike Martin is the breakfasts’ “head pancake maker.” Martin has a plane and hangar in Hermiston and has served on the city’s Airport Advisory Committee for about 10 years. He is excited about what Gorge Aviation Services has accomplished so far.
Martin said in the 1980s Hermiston had city leaders, such as Tom Harper, who were passionate about aviation. Once those leaders moved on, however, the airport was “forgotten” for decades and not living up to its potential.
“The airport needs to grow with the city,” he said.
Martin said assistant city manager Mark Morgan has been a “godsend” for the airport in recent years as he has worked hard to bring in millions of dollars in Federal Aviation Administration grants. Those grants have paid for a taxiway realignment, pavement overlays, new lighting and moving and expanding the fuel station. Now Gorge Aviation is helping create a 180-degree turnaround on the operations side with new programs and services.
“I want the community to know these things are available to them, because a lot of people don’t know all they need to do is go there and ask,” he said.
Previously, for example, people who wanted to get their pilot’s license had to go up to the Tri-Cities for lessons. That’s where Martin’s wife learned, and he said the commute increased the time commitment. Now that instructors are available in Hermiston, Martin is taking lessons for instrument flying, or flying through no-visibility conditions.
“It makes you a better pilot ... I wouldn’t have thought about it if I had to drive up to the Tri-Cities,” he said.
Leirvik said there are five or six beginners taking lessons right now, another five who are refreshing themselves after years of not flying, and a handful of experienced pilots taking the instrument flying classes.
In addition to having flying instructors available, Martin said he also appreciated the addition of the mechanic shop. There is a serious shortage of qualified aviation mechanics in the country, he said, and “you don’t want just any Tom, Dick or Harry working on your plane.”
In that vein, while the field trips, internships and night classes for high school students don’t directly benefit pilots at the airport, Martin whole-heartedly supports them as a way to spark interest in aviation careers for young people.
He said the Airport Advisory Committee is working on a 25-year plan for the airport. The committee would like to see the airport expanded someday, and has come up with new ideas, such as connecting the airport to the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center so that people flying in for conferences and other events don’t need to pay a taxi to take them up to Highway 395 and back down the next road to EOTEC.