The Sky’s the Limit at Kirkwood Community College

Justin Hoehn
Innovation Showcase

Kirkwood Community College kicked off a new Aviation Maintenance Technology (AMT) Associate of Applied Sciences (AAS) program this fall. Since its announcement, this innovative offering has garnered a lot of excitement from students as well as community and business leaders. The start of the program, which is expected to pay big dividends not only for students and the college’s seven-county service area, but also for the regional aviation industry, was a historic moment for Kirkwood.

Soon after Kirkwood President Dr. Lori Sundberg began her tenure in late 2018, Eastern Iowa Airport (CID) Director Marty Lenss approached the college about creating the new program to address a growing need for qualified aviation maintenance technicians. While the college was receptive and viewed the airport as a key partner in the region, things initially moved at a slow pace.

Throughout its nearly 60-year history, Kirkwood has prided itself on its commitment to identifying and addressing community needs, and in this case, there was definitely an increasing demand for workers in the field. But with the high cost of a program such as this, determining that need was just the beginning. The college would need lab space, equipment, instructors, and no small amount of funding to make the new program a reality.

As the partnership progressed, CID provided a hangar to address the need for lab space. However, it would have to be renovated in order to be suitable for an educational setting. With this expense as well as other costs associated with program development, funding became the college’s main focus.

Kirkwood President Lori Sundberg at September 2022 press conference

In late September 2022, the college held a press conference at Kirkwood’s hangar to formally announce the AMT program along with nearly $1 million in federal grants and private funding received for the project. Sundberg, Lenss, and Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham were among the speakers at the event. All major local media outlets covered the announcement, which was also attended by community and business leaders, state legislators, and representatives from the offices of U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst as well as Congresswoman Ashley Hinson.

The funding included a nearly $800,000 federal grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration and almost $200,000 from local sources. The money was earmarked to pay for hangar renovations, which include new classroom space, a workshop, access to airport facilities, and updated building infrastructure such as HVAC, restrooms, and other contemporary features. According to estimates at the time of the announcement, 100 new jobs were expected to be created as a result of the funds.

Following the press conference, Kirkwood procured three grounded aircraft for students to learn on, in addition to engines and other educational resources that they use as part of their studies. The equipment was acquired through purchases by the college as well as donations from local employers eager for the program to succeed.

As time moved on, the pieces were falling into place. Faculty had been hired and curriculum was developed. Excitement was building for the program both inside and outside the college. But two more major hurdles needed to be cleared before students could enroll in classes. First, the program needed approval by the Iowa Department of Education, which was granted for a fall 2023 start in December 2022. The second, and perhaps bigger, obstacle was getting approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). As is the case with many federal agencies, obtaining FAA approval can sometimes be an extensive process.

In anticipation of starting the AMT program, Kirkwood began the lengthy application procedure in late 2021. After filing the necessary paperwork, the FAA held an on-site inspection of Kirkwood’s equipment and facilities, including the college’s hangar at CID. In July 2023, Kirkwood received news that the FAA had approved the program. In addition, the agency determined that the program curriculum aligned with its Airman Certification Standards, which the FAA uses to measure performance for certifications or ratings. The approval, in conjunction with authorization from the Iowa Department of Education, signified that the program could officially enroll students for the fall.

Upon learning of the program’s full approval, Sundberg updated the community:

We’re very excited that we just received FAA approval for our new program. Without it we would not have been able to move forward, even if we had met all other requirements. Now that we have it, the final steps are being taken and we can start to address this major industry and workforce need. With air travel demands now at pre-pandemic levels, the sooner we can make an impact, the better.

Instructor Nathan Bellinger repairing a hydraulic line

Almost immediately, program staff began enrolling students. In a few short days, the AMT program had reached a full capacity of 24 students, with a waitlist of additional people wanting to pursue a career in aviation maintenance.

With Kirkwood's hangar under construction through the rest of the calendar year, the program is currently holding classes a few miles away from the airport and just north of the college’s main campus in southwest Cedar Rapids at the Kirkwood Continuing Education and Training Center. The aircraft and equipment are being stored at a hangar adjacent to the one currently under construction, which was also made available by CID. Students will begin using the renovated space at the start of the spring 2024 semester.

Now that the program is up and running, college and CID officials fully expect it to be a catalyst for additional aviation business activity and economic growth in the region. Discussions have begun between the airport and aviation industry leaders to bring new opportunities to CID and the communities of eastern Iowa. In addition, many regional air carriers have expressed strong interest in hiring Kirkwood’s graduates once they complete their studies.

To Sundberg, all of the time and work to get to this point was well worth the effort, and yet another example of the great things that Kirkwood can do. “This is not your average program,” said Sundberg. She continued:

A lot of different pieces needed to fall into place in order to make it possible. From working with the Eastern Iowa Airport, to getting both public and private funding, to finding the right hangar and renovating it, to getting the approval of both the Department of Education and the FAA, it’s been a challenge for sure. But this is what we do at Kirkwood. We see a need in our community, and we find a way to address it. I am extremely proud to see this finally happening, and I can't wait to see our graduates make a huge difference in the aviation industry.

Lead image: Kirkwood Community College’s hangar at the Eastern Iowa Airport

Justin Hoehn is Associate Director, Marketing, at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.