Hovering high above the Klamath Basin is where Klamath Community College student and Precision Aviation flight instructor Justin Walker likes to be.

At speeds of 80 knots, equivalent to roughly 90 miles per hour, Walker has accumulated about 300 hours of flight time and is set to be one of the first graduates of KCC's aviation science program, which partners with Precision Aviation for training.

The program has experienced an influx of students in the last year, with 25 students compared to 10 at this time in March 2015.

The energized aviation program is evolving through a number of efforts. One, the institution plans to help ease the financial burden on students associated with the cost of tuition; two, the program is now training pilots for the aviation industry in one of the most modern training aircraft in the world: the Guimbal Cabri G2, which is distributed by Precision Aviation, based in Newberg, Ore.

Walker landed with ease on the lawn of the institution on Wednesday, attracting a small crowd of onlookers interested in the aircraft.

“It's the difference between driving grandma's old beater car or a nice new Jaguar,” Walker said.

Walker joined the program in 2014 and is looking forward to a career in the industry. He has already taken jobs fighting fires from the air in California as well as instructing KCC students in flight training as one of Precision's helicopter instructors.

“When you're in the air pretty high, it doesn't feel like you're moving super fast,” Walker said. “It's a pretty cool feeling to get off the ground, especially in a helicopter where you can hover and kind of just float. You get used to it but it's still exciting every time,” he added.

No 'floating by' here

When it comes to earning an associates of applied science degree through the program, Walker emphasized, “It's not a job for someone who just wants to float by” in the academic sense.

Students enrolled in the helicopter training program at KCC learn to fly high in a class all their own.

“We don't do group lessons,” said Nigel Cooper, director of training and chief flight instructor for Precision. “This is all individualized, one-on-one.

“Everyone learns a different way and one of the things you have to do in the cockpit as an instructor is adapt your way of instruction to the personal attributes of a student,” Cooper added.

Safety first

Each student at KCC trains in a Cabri G2, a light and durable aircraft powered by a high-inertia rotor system. The aircraft is lauded for its design that caters to efficient training. The program put the helicopter into the training curriculum in March 2015.

“We wanted to switch to the safest thing that was out there,” Walker said, who instructs between three and four students. “We want to provide the highest level of safety to our students.”

(The Schweizer 300c is still utilized by Precision Aviation in Newberg, Walker said, for students not enrolled in its program in Klamath Falls.)

Cooper and Walker praised the Cabri G2 for meeting stringent European design requirements and for its ease and efficiency in training pilots.

“It's quiet, it's smooth, and the big thing is, it makes you comfortable knowing the aircraft was designed for training,” Cooper said.

“It has a number of other features that make it safe if something untoward was going to happen.”

The helicopter has a composite construction, Cooper said, a stronger material than aluminum used in other aircraft. The Cabri G2 is also designed with the flight student in mind.

Risks of flight

Cooper puts an emphasis on the risk involved in the training “as long as man defies gravity."

"Most of the students coming into this game are aware of the hazards involved,” Cooper said.

Part of training is learning how to identify these risks and prepare for them, specifically hazards which may arise during night flights.

“Part of the ground curriculum is understanding the human factors associated with flying,” Cooper added, referencing the physiological limitations involved.

“During the night, the visual limitations are quite significant. We learn all about the construct of the eye and which part of the eye is used for day vision and night vision and color and black and white, and therefore how that limits you when you are night flying.”

The company is familiar with the risks of flight on a personal level.

On July 1, 2015, a Precision Aviation instructor and Klamath Community College student living outside the Klamath Basin died when the Schweizer 300 the men were flying in crashed near Chehalem Airpark in Newberg during a night flight. Flying at night is part of the curriculum.

The cause of the crash is still unknown, according to the report, but witnesses therein described hearing a "high-pitched squeal" in the aircraft before the crash.

“You never get over something like that,” Cooper said. “Everyone involved in that accident will carry those feelings for the rest of their lives. In reviewing what happened, there's always some areas of improvement … you have to learn from something like that and try and reduce the chances of something like that from happening again."

Cooper emphasized the quality and level of training the program remains beyond what's expected by the Federal Aviation Administration standards.

“Most schools will train to FAA minimums, and we train to industry standards,” he said. “What I want to do is not only meet those but I want to look at what is required by industry and ensuring we meet those. And that's why Precision, being an operational company, doing real work and the connections we have in the industry, helps. We actually understand what those requirements are.”

Cooper has flown as a former engineer and pilot with The Royal New Zealand Air Force everything from search and rescue operations and battlefield support to counter terrorism and fighting wildfires.

“I've flown seven prime ministers or presidents from seven different countries,” Cooper said. “As part of my basic training, I flew a jet fighter and it was a very wide and varied career and you didn't know what was next around the corner, and that's the great thing about the industry.”

His are experiences that have made for an exciting career, and experiences he can draw from to teach the next generation of pilots.

“Using the experience to tailor a program, that equips the students to be ready for all that stuff,” Cooper said. “Someone that graduates from the program is not going to step right in to that front-end stuff, but you can have a curriculum that sets them up so they can step into it a lot easier. That's my job is to make sure their curriculum is relevant.”

Training certifications in helicopter aviation through the KCC program costs more than $100,000.

Cooper said the program is trying to make the opportunity more accessible to those willing to put in the time and effort.

“We're working with some financial institutions at the moment to try and develop a student financing program outside federal funding,” Cooper said.

“We see a number of really great, motivated students that simply don't have a financial backing. It's no secret, it's an expensive program.”

Changes for veterans

Due to alleged abuse of G.I. Benefits that have occurred at other flight schools in the country, Cooper said the rules have tightened for veterans looking to earn their training for free.

“They're no longer paying for private pilot (licensing),” Cooper said. “It's not an open checkbook. Students still have to meet certain expectations, but there's still that opportunity for veterans. Other students can get federal funding … but that is geared around purely academic courses. So what we're hoping to do with the initiative in student financing is to enhance the grants that everyone is eligible for now to make it achievable.”

For many students, the experience, regardless of the cost, is priceless.

Amber Forest, a 45-year-old veteran and adrenaline enthusiast, is the only woman of 25 students training to be a pilot through Precision Aviation. She's so far logged about 25 hours toward the 100 hours needed when she completes the program.

Forest said she logged many hours helicopter passenger hours during her service in the U.S. military, but only since September 2015 has she gotten a taste of what it feels like behind the controls.

“I've mastered a car, I've mastered a motorcycle,” she said. Piloting a helicopter is next on her list.

"I've always loved flying," she said. “You've got to do it before you die."

By the end of the program, Forest will have earned six licenses and will have close to 100 or more hours.

“When you become a flight instructor, that's where you build up your hours and you try to get up to 1,000,” Forest said. “It takes about 1,000 to break into the industry.”

Students training to be helicopter pilots are required to complete 91 credits, including 17 credits of general education requirements, during the two-year program to obtain an associates of applied science degree in aviation.

Forest joked that when she “grows up,” she'd like to serve as a helicopter pilot for law enforcement or for a news organization.

“You have to be highly motivated to come into this program,” Forest said.

Cooper emphasized the company's significantly high job placement record for those who complete the program.

“If we don't take a graduate on, it's not the end of the line for them. There are lots of opportunities,” Cooper said.

To learn more about the program, contact aviation program lead James “JR” Scott at 541-880-2263 or by email at scottj@klamathcc.edu.