‘Eyes light up’ at third annual Aerospace Community Day

Thousands venture through halls of UND Aerospace and get first-hand experience with nation’s leading flight school

Eight-year-old Andrew Cassanelli controlled a virtual airfield with the help of Hannah Park, an air traffic management major, at Saturday’s Aerospace Community Day. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

With a headset equipped, Andrew Cassanelli felt like he was the master of the airport.

Across his field of view, planes taxied for takeoff and approached for landings. His partner on the tower station, wearing a green shirt, pointed to the craft they were going to radio next.

And throughout the experience, Andrew’s eyes sparkled in the glow of the virtual airfield, as the 8-year-old sat the controls of UND’s giant air-traffic-control-tower simulator in Ryan Hall.

Watching hundreds of eyes “light up” while experiencing UND Aerospace is the real magic of Aerospace Community Day, according to many of the green-shirt-wearing volunteers — staff, students and faculty — who helped out with Saturday’s third annual event.

In the words of Paul Lindseth, dean of the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, Community Day is an opportunity for the School to open its door to not only Grand Forks, but the region.

Every academic department and student organization around UND Aerospace has the chance to make a lasting impression on those who stop by.

As for Andrew, he just likes planes.

“He said he wants to go to UND,” chimed his grandmother, looking on as Andrew worked side by side with Hannah Park, an air traffic management major.

To the amazement of his little brother, Francis, August Preuss, 13, was quick to catch on to flying small quadcopters around Robin Hall’s drone gym. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Educational, hands-on, super fun

In the next building over, at Robin Hall, small quadcopters were hovering and buzzing around hoops and racing flags in the “drone gymnasium.” The steady hum would be interrupted only by the inevitable clatter of crashing plastic or the delighted exclamations of the drone-pilots-for-a-day. The only people allowed beyond the line of tables and into the flight area were student volunteers, who waded into the fray to recover and quickly repair the drones.

Before picking up a controller off a table, Francis Preuss was as bouncy and energetic as one would expect a 7-year-old to be. His older brother, August, 13, was bearing the brunt of it. But once the pair took turns learning how to control a drone, their energy turned into determination.

“I like that they go fast,” Francis beamed, watching his brother more adeptly dart the craft in and out of hoops. Once it was his turn again, Francis learned that at the touch of a button, the drone would do a flip. That was almost better than going fast, he said.

Their mother, Amanda, said it was their second time coming to the now-annual event. With the boys being able to experience a day’s worth of activities for a free admission cost, Aerospace Community Day is an easy draw on a wintry Saturday, she said.

“It’s organized so well,” she said. “And they get to see stuff they normally wouldn’t at school. It’s educational, hands-on and super fun for kids.

“Both of them are into the technology, so this event opens their minds to what they can do.”

Francis Preuss, 7, had his strength unexpectedly tested when picking up a meteorite at the Space Studies booths in Robin Hall. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Eventually, the Preuss brothers had to let others in line get their shot at flying. Luckily, just down the Robin Hall hall, Assistant Professor Caitlin Nolby and her Space Studies team had a “Please Touch” lineup of space rocks and a touch-and-feel display of what the Moon’s surface is like.

Francis was once again captivated as a meteorite unexpectedly tested his lifting strength. Marissa Saad, North Dakota Space Grant Coordinator, gave him a magnet to test the objects on the table. Sure enough, the magnet clicked right onto the dense, iron-filled meteorite.

The display was one of many produced by Space Studies for Community Day, said Nolby. Another was over in Clifford Hall, where grad student and avowed “spacesuit nerd” Will Green showed off the suits designed both by students and Human Spaceflight Laboratory director Pablo de León. A  new display in the lab also showed pieces of spacesuits that have been tested in space environments.

Both Nolby and Green affirmed that watching kids’ excitement as the young people learn is what makes Aerospace Community Day worth it.

WDAY Broadcast Meteorologist and UND alumna Summer Schnellbach taught youngsters the ropes of being weather anchors at Community Day. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

“I really think it will be a day they remember,” Nolby said. “And maybe it will help them form their academic or career track as they grow up.”

The community-building event, as Nolby noted, also presents an excellent opportunity for students to work with kids, and to share their research and passions at a level young people can understand. For Nolby, who partners with Saad on North Dakota Space Grant, working with kids is a weekly occurrence.

More than 200 people volunteered to help Saturday’s 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. event go smoothly.

“It’s significant for our students to be part of this,” she said. “Aerospace is a huge piece of being in Grand Forks.”

The new Virtual Reality Lab in Odegard Hall required all hands on deck for the entirety of Aerospace Community Day. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Hidden gem of Grand Forks

The varieties of simulators were a huge draw for the thousands descending on campus. The recently opened Virtual Reality Lab in Odegard Hall was hopping all day, keeping its minders consistently moving station to station.

The experience was a highlight for India Loewen, whose family came from just across the Canadian border for the occasion. She and her sisters talked about their favorites from the hangar at UND Flight Operations at Grand Forks International Airport.

“It made me very dizzy,” she laughed, referring to the VR experience. “And I couldn’t see my brother, who was standing right next to me.”

India’s flight ended in a nose-dive for her virtual craft, but her sister Kennedy had a more successful approach. Speaking of Kennedy, she enjoyed her tour of a UND-green R44 Cadet Robinson helicopter.

“I liked seeing the helicopter, and it was fun to sit in it,” Kennedy said. “There were so many different buttons.”

Throughout the day, buses made trips from Odegard Hall to the airport, where aircraft of all sorts were on display, along with airport maintenance equipment.

Jonathan Gehrke, director of development for UND Aerospace at the UND Alumni Association & Foundation, keeps an eye on sons Elijah and Josiah as they get a chance to sit in the cockpit of one of UND’s R44 Cadet Robinson helicopters. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

In another section of the large hangar, Assistant Professor and aerobatic pilot Mike Lents was posted next to one of UND’s bright red Super Decathlon aircraft, made specifically for flying daring airborne routines. Some kids arriving at the hangar, after experiencing a handful of simulations beforehand, paused to ask if the aircraft is real, he said.

“We have them sit in the plane and move the flaps and look around,” Lents said. “It’s fun to see their amazement as they experience the real thing.”

Lents said getting people out to the airport is an excellent way for the community to fully realize the scale of UND’s flight training. UND Aerospace, for all its renown, is a “hidden gem” when it comes to not only its impressive fleet, but also its prestigious and competitive flight teams, he noted.

“For one of the most active flight schools in the nation, Community Day really helps with awareness of what it is we do out here,” Lents said.

Delta Airlines Captain and UND alumna Karen Ruth could be found close to Delta’s Instagram photo booth, where kids could try on pilot’s caps and pose for pictures. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Community, industry partners

Now that Aerospace Community Day has become an annual occurrence, more of UND’s industry partners are getting in on the fun. UND Aerospace Hall of Famer Karen Ruth, a captain with Delta Airlines, said it’s important for the airline to recognize the highly valuable customer base in the Grand Forks community, and that Delta will have a presence at the event in years to come.

On the second-floor landing of Robin Hall, Ruth and fellow Delta representatives had activities for the kids, including an Instagram photo booth and a taped runway along the hall where visitors could land a styrofoam aircraft.

“We recognize there’s a huge value in exposing Delta Airlines to the community that supports us,” said Ruth, adding that the airline is looking to hire positions across the board, not just pilots. “We’re seeing individuals who are really young, and we want to get them interested early. I had that exposure at a young age, and that’s what made me a Delta pilot.”

Cody Anderson, an aviation major, helped Delta with its styrofoam airplane demonstration, where people could try to “land” the craft on a taped-off runway. Photo by Connor Murphy/UND Today.

Community Day’s sponsors were mostly (though not all) in the aviation sphere, said Associate Dean Beth Bjerke. Cirrus Aircraft, Envoy Airlines and Rydell Cars joined Delta as Gold-level supporters. Other sponsors included Grand Forks International Airport, Sun Country Airlines, Endeavor Airlines, SkyWest Airlines, Fargo Jet Center and the Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Not only do they provide monetary support to help offset the cost of the event, but they also provide inspiration for our young guests,” said Bjerke. “It was fun to watch them interact with everyone on Saturday.”

Lindseth, looking across the room at the overflowing coat rack in Robin Hall, remarked that Aerospace Community Day once again had a great turnout, and the dean was proud of the all-hands-on-deck approach of the School’s departments and organizations.

“It’s great to let the community know what’s going on at the University, especially the new technologies we’re starting to use with our training,” he said.

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