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Erika Hiddinga

The smile was glued on Erika Hiddinga for the better part of her first airplane ride. That was a three hour commercial airline trip when she was 12, about 10 years ago. Hiddinga, in the home stretch of a five-year double-major commecial aviation and aviation management at the University of North Dakota, said she was hooked and has been passionate about flying ever since.

The Rochester, Minn., native who was born in Laramie, Wyo., says that passion drove her to UND, a school well known among aviation enthusiasts for its stellar training program.

“UND has a such a major reputation, it’s the No. 1 school,” said Hiddinga, who recently made the elite grade of certified flight instructor (CFI) at UND. “That plus the fact that you can get a liberal arts degree, instead of just getting a pilot’s certificate, is what made me decide to come here. It’s been terrific for me.”

Hiddinga still smiles eagerly when the talk is about airplanes, flying, and anything else to do with aviation.

“I just love it,” she said. “When I was 16, my parents bought me an introductory flight in Rochester,” Hiddinga. “It was an hour-long flight during which I saw my house. I thought it was very cool and it reaffirmed that’s what I wanted to do. So I came up here to UND and got right into it.”

Despite the long days and the time commitment, Hiddinga says it’s all worth it.

“Now that I’m a flight instructor and get paid for flying and accumulating hours, I realize that all that work paid off,” she said. “Now, after building up some hours flight instructing, I plan to go with a regional airline and build up more hours.”

Eventually, she’s looking at logging at least 1,500 hours in the cockpit so she can pursue another long-time ambition: join the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as an accident investigator.

“You have to build up a lot of hours before you can apply to the NTSB,” said Hiddinga, who plans to obtain an aviation mechanics ticket--what’s called an “Air frame and powerplant” certficate--along the road to the NTSB. “I’ve always been interested in criminology, too. I think doing accident investigations would be right up my alley. It’ll take a couple more years in school for the aviation mechanics part of it.”

Flight instruction at UND involves the country’s largest civilian fleet of training aircraft--about 140, including airplanes, helicopters, and simulators, both here at UND and at the University’s satellite aviation training facilities at Crookston, Minn., Phoenix, Ariz., and Spokane, Wash.--and about 230 CFIs.

This level of training resources clearly puts UND ahead of the pack, notes Dr. Bruce Smith, dean of the UND John D. Odegard School of Aerospace sciences.

For Hiddinga, who earned a scholarship to train in UND’s jet passenger plane simulator, that level of commitment to students was a key factor in her success. Now as a flight instructor at UND, she plans to put all that training to excellent use with the next generation of student pilots.

“We have to provide training for students both on the ground and in the air,” she said. “On the ground, you go through the regulations, maneuvers, and the proper set-ups; in the air, you go through the maneuvers and learn cockpit procedures. We really do a lot of training on the ground prior to flight and we do a lot of simulator work, as well. We want to make sure that students understand everything and that they’re able to use those skills in the cockpit. For me as an instructor, the important thing is to maintain safety and performance standards and make sure that students are up to those standards.”

Bottom line is that Hiddinga would handily recommend UND’s aviation program to anyone considering a flight training program.

“This is such a great program because not only do you become an aviator, but you get a worthwhile degree, as well,” she said. “Once you’ve been here awhile, it’s kind of a family. You get to know everyone and it’s kind of a fun atmosphere. Everything is very well organized and set up well, and they’ve got good scholarship programs.”

As she heads toward a career in the airlines with her UND aviation diploma, Hiddinga sees a bright future ahead.

“I never had a bad instructor here,” she said.

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