On the flightline at UND
On the flightline at UND
It’s not unusual for a typical college student to take on a part-time job while enrolled with a full load of classes.
But for students like University of North Dakota sophomore Ben Lunstrum, his work is more than just a part-time gig. “I’ve always wanted to be around airplanes,” Lunstrum said. “It’s been a really good experience.”
Ben works as a flightline technical with the UND Aerospace department. His main job: to ensure each aircraft is ready for flight. “It’s not just pilots who run the show,” Lunstrum said. “It’s about the people behind the scenes.”
UND boasts one of the largest fleets of aircraft in the world. With hundreds of airplanes making thousands of flights per week, it takes a large support staff to make things work. Truckloads of aviation-grade fuel as well as gallons of de-icing fluid and hundreds of quarts of oil have to be delivered to each airplane each day.
An entire staff of line professionals is equipped with a fleet of tugs, fuel trucks and other specialized equipment to tackle this organized chaos.
Students like Ben make up “about 60%” of the total flightline workforce. “This job is not for just anybody,” flightline supervisor Danny Holwerda said. “We can’t afford people doing things the wrong way.”
In fact, student-employees like Ben are entrusted with millions of dollars worth of equipment on a daily basis. “It’s a huge amount of work and a lot of responsibility,” Lunstrum said.
A large number of pilots will, in one way or another, work on the flightline. Any airport, from small municipal fields to the world’s largest international hubs, all have a demand for flightline personnel. The tasks remain largely the same.
Airplanes need to be pushed out of their hangers at the beginning of the day, they need to be properly parked and tied down to the ramp in gusty conditions. Flight crews, operating with tight weight restrictions need precise amounts of fuel in a timely manner. Before flight, frost needs to be removed from the wings and tail of the airplane. At the end of the day, hundreds of oddly-shaped airplanes need to be perfectly stacked into the hangars.
“Line is just one part of the system,” said Holwerda. “From the time the crew arrives for a flight, people behind the scenes have pulled the airplanes out, scheduled the right dispatch time, predicted the weather and properly maintained the airplane.”
A day in the life
About three times a week, Ben makes the drive out to Grand Forks International Airport to begin his shift before sunrise. A lot has to be done before the steady flow of pilots and instructors show up, each demanding their own airplane to be fueled and ready.
“You pull up to the airplane and hook the nose up using this thing,” Ben said as he hopped out of his small tug and wound a reel connected to the nosewheel of a single-engine Cessna 172. Ben climbed back aboard his two-seat tug and slowly reversed, mindful of the airplane’s long wingtips.
Across the airport, this process would be repeated about a hundred times until each airplane was towed out to a position on the flightline where a fuel truck topped off the proper amount of fuel to the order of the flight crew.
“It isn’t nearly this busy where I learned to fly,” said Lunstrum. A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Ben took his first flight lessons at an airport that had only a handful of airplanes, a sharp contrast to the robust fleet he frequently services.
More than a job
“It’s the love of aviation that brings me back,” UND Senior Jonathan Schultz said. “Working at line is a right of passage. It’s a good way to be around what you love and make some money.”
Flightline personal are expected to show up to work rain or shine, despite the harsh North Dakota winters. “The weather has an impact on operation,” Holwerda said. “But just like anything else, we will adapt to the mission.”
But when the rubber hits the road, airplanes left out on the flightline in a winter storm need to be put away at the end of the day, that’s when student employees like Lunstrum shine. “There’s always something to do,” he said. “At this airport, there’s never a break in the action.”
At the end of the day, the flightline crew heads home as the unsung heroes of the airport. They do not enjoy the high-profile status of pilots or instructors, but take away a humble appreciation for the work accomplished behind the scenes at a busy airport.
By Sean Lee, Student Reporter, UND.edu
Lee, Sean, "On the flightline at UND" (2011). UND News Features. 128.