PELLA — The first rule of flight club is you never talk about flight club.
However, Jeff Jorgenson is breaking the rules with Open Air, a youth organization that strives to make aviation affordable, accessible and achievable for those who want to learn.
The organization is a culmination of more than 25 years of Jorgenson’s experience in aviation. Throughout his journey in the military, a private university, a flight college and three different airports, Jorgenson realized there’s a shorter, easier and cheaper way to become involved in aviation.
“If people are more informed about aviation, how it works and how to get started, they can make more informed choices if they have an interest in aviation,” says Jorgenson.
Jorgenson is no stranger in Marion or Mahaska County. Originally from Newton, Jorgenson is a flight instructor at the Knoxville Municipal Airport. He has also worked closely with Shane Vande Voort at Classic Aviation in Pella. In previous years, Jorgenson has provided “Black Fly-Day” plane rides the Friday after Thanksgiving at the Oskaloosa Municipal Airport.
Now, he hopes to reach a larger audience with Open Air.
The birth of Flight Club
In 2018, Jorgenson started a youth flight club in Lamoni, Iowa, which was named the poorest town in the state by the Des Moines Register the same year. Dr. Jesse Bolinger was serving as an Americorp VISTA at the time, a national service position that works with children in poverty, when he first met Jorgenson.
“I was supposed to be developing in-school and after school programs for kids in poverty in Lamoni, and I knew a guy that happened to be a mutual friend. He was the manager of the Lamoni Airport, and that’s when I met Jeff,” says Bolinger. “That kicked off everything.”
Jorgenson first introduced aviation to students at one of Bolinger’s after school programs.
“They introduced me as a pilot, and I told them I’m going to talk to them about aviation,” says Jorgenson. “Aviation generally sparks wonder and awe in kids, but two-thirds of the class were playing under their desks and had dismissed me already. They had already discounted that aviation was accessible to them for various life circumstances.”
Jorgenson finally caught the attention of the rest of the class with an unusual prop: a real plane propeller.
“They began asking specific questions because I got them involved,” says Jorgenson.
Jorgenson and Bolinger then formed the Lamoni Flight Club, which consisted of six students. Three of the six students have now graduated and earned their pilot license.
“The first rule of flight club is you can’t talk about flight club,” says Jorgenson. “So, I guess I broke that rule. But, we had a lot of fun with it.”
Bolinger, who has been legally blind since childhood, is also working towards his pilot license with the help of Jorgenson and electronic glasses. Bolinger’s disability is only one example of why Jorgenson continues to find ways to help people get involved in aviation, despite physical, financial or social limitations.
“As a legally blind kid from southwest Iowa, I never imagined that I could have a future in aviation,” says Bolinger. “I didn’t even think I could touch the industry.”
A shortage in workforce
Sixty-nine thousand new maintenance technicians will be needed to fly and maintain the world fleet over the next 20 years, according to a recent Pilot and Technician Outlook study conducted by Boeing, the world's largest aerospace company and leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners, defense, space and security systems. This includes positions in commercial aviation, business aviation and civil helicopter industries.
The current forecast from 2020 to 2039 is up from last year's 20-year forecast of 754,000. Projected demand in North America is 193,000, up 2% from last year, according to the study.
“There’s a tremendous shortage of people to work in the aviation trades,” says Jorgenson. “The industry is struggling to fill them now, especially with COVID-19. Airlines took a big hit, and they didn’t anticipate it when they first did the study last year.”
More specifically, small municipal airports are struggling to find qualified individuals to operate them efficiently. According to Jorgenson, small municipal airports are typically managed by volunteers or by the city manager, who typically doesn’t have the appropriate experience or skillset.
“It’s not that they don’t want to do a better job, but they don’t know how,” says Jorgenson. “They struggle with it, and it becomes a burden to most communities. So, many airports get overlooked or are just not utilized to their potential because no one has that experience or expertise in aviation.”
In 2017, Jorgenson wrote the book “Open Air: How People like Yourself are Changing the Aviation Industry,” a general introductory guide to aviation. Aviation is not typically taught in the public school system, so it is only accessible to people who have connections, says Jorgenson.
“Either they join the military, or they have parents who are pilots, so it’s largely generational,” says Jorgenson. “They have family or a friend or they know someone who’s a pilot who can help them and guide them along the way. Otherwise, 99% of the population has no idea.”
Because of this, Jorgenson hopes to make aviation affordable, accessible and achievable for those who want to learn through Open Air. Those who are interested in joining the organization will receive a copy of Jorgenson’s book, a subscription to an upcoming aviation magazine, unlimited resources and a lifetime membership with a one-time payment.
Jorgenson and Bolinger will introduce the organization at the Pella Community Center, beginning with a social hour at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24. An introduction, dinner and a presentation about the organization will follow, beginning at 4:30 p.m. The community center is located at 712 Union Street in Pella.
“Jeff is an outstanding individual who has been working tirelessly to help people in aviation, and we encourage people to join Open Air Flight Club to get involved and become part of a movement that is revolutionizing aviation,” says Bolinger.
More information can be found at https://openairflightclub.com/.