December 08, 2009

Airport inspections get students out in the field

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Having a passion for aviation is about more than flying airplanes.

Ensuring airport safety and helping provide pilots the latest information about the nation’s approximately 5,000 general aviation airports is also a passion for students in Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Department of Aviation Management and Flight program.

For a sixth year, New Orleans-based GCR & Associates selected SIUC’s program as a subcontractor to assist in coordination and administration of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airport Safety Data Program. The program involves individual inspections of non-commercial airports by each state to identify potentially unsafe conditions at or near airports throughout the United States. The information goes into an FAA Airport Facility Directory to assist pilots flying into general aviation airports. Directory updates occur every 56 days.

SIUC is the only university involved with the program, said David A. NewMyer, department chair.

Graduate assistants David R. Kulinsky and Dora-Anne Asinjo participated in the airport inspections earlier this year, visiting 22 airports and eight seaports during one week in Maine. They teamed with Jim Bildili, a retired bureau chief of airport engineering and safety with the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation. Bildilli, who lives in Springfield, oversees the on-site inspections working on a part-time basis with SIUC.

The inspections cover everything from runway conditions and potential runway obstructions to fuel and maintenance availability. Pilots use the directory information in pre-flight planning, Bilidilli said. Some of the states where SIUC provides inspections include Arizona, Maine, Texas, West Virginia, North Carolina and parts of Virginia.

Asinjo and Kulinsky are pursuing master’s degrees in public administration in aviation administration. Kulinsky will graduate in May; Asinjo will graduate in December 2010.

The training is invaluable, said Asinjo, who will likely pursue a career in airport planning.

“From a perspective of planning it helps when you are out in the field knowing all of the requirements of each airport and what you need to plan for,” she said. “Going into the airport, the terminal building, and the runway layout, it helps getting out there and being familiar with the sorts of things you look for from a planning perspective or updating an airport’s master plan or information.

“It’s kind of your first experience out in the field and not just at the desk. You are gaining practical experience,” she said.

Most state aviation departments, including Illinois, conduct their own field inspections, with GCR & Associates assuming the FAA’s responsibility to compensate those states’ agencies through the FAA grant. Richard Gossen, manager, federal aviation services with GCR & Associates, said the company looked at SIUC’s nationally recognized aviation program when it approached the project with the FAA in 2004.

The University’s role primarily consists of entering and executing contracts with state aviation departments for reimbursement of airport inspections. The relationship evolved into SIUC inspecting airports for states that cannot inspect their airports due to staffing, budgetary or other reasons, Gossen said.

“The expertise, commitment and professionalism of the SIUC team have proven to be integral and invaluable assets in making the National Airport Safety Data Program a continued success since 2004,” Gossen said.

The FAA reviews the collected data before it goes into the directory. The directory is “one of those things that pilots need to look at every single time they go flying into any airport,” Kulinsky said.

“One of the most important things when you are a pilot is to always know what airport you are going to and what you should expect when you are at the airport; if there is a runway closure, if a taxiway is closed, if there are obstructions, and if they provide fuel. This is something we check when we do the inspections,” he said.

The inspections offer students an opportunity to see how airports operate and how different topography and geography play into airport operations, Bildilli said.

“They experience the difference in the philosophy of the states and the FAA toward the operation and maintenance of an airport,” he said.

Kulinsky is looking to get into aviation security, but the program is a definite benefit. As part of his career in the aviation industry, he will work with airport directors, managers, and people who work on the airfield.

“It was definitely a good experience going out there and actually inspecting the airports,” he said. “Not that many people actually get to have that chance of inspecting an airport for a graduate assistant job. Most people are just doing research. We are actually getting to do hands-on stuff for the FAA.

“This is something that we have a passion for. We are working in this office and getting a degree in the aviation administration concentration because we are passionate about aviation,” he said.

Working with students is fun, said Bildilli, who performs many of the inspections himself. The students assist in about 30 to 35 inspections during the year based on location and time allotment. Students sit down with airport managers for interviews and discuss their findings.

“Through talking with the kids they understand that the kids and I are not there to zing them on anything,” he said. “Collecting information to update pilots is the primary concern.”