Don Germeraad was just what the War Department wanted in the early 1940s — a college graduate with flight training.
Germeraad joined the U.S. Navy after graduating from Rocky Mountain College in 1941 and then went on to a long career as a test pilot and engineer in the U.S. space program.
The Billings native didn’t forget his alma mater later in life. His estate left $38,000 to help the college’s aviation program teach students well into the future.
Rocky is using the donation to update the aviation facility and expand into the other half of the building that was previously occupied by St. Francis West Day Care, said Dan Hargrove, director of the aviation program.
The space became available after Billings Catholic Schools consolidated its daycare, all of which now is at St. Francis Primary School.
The first part of the project completed this fall includes knocking down a wall between the two parts of the building and repainting and reflooring the lounge.
The next phase will remodel the former daycare area to house the program’s three flight simulators.
The new room, to be named The Donald Germeraad Flight Simulation Training Center, is expected to be ready for fall 2013.
Two offices and two briefing rooms also will be added.
Germeraad will give students plenty of inspiration for aviation careers.
“His story is phenomenal,” Hargrove said.
Born in 1920, Germeraad grew up on a ranch south of Billings, said his sister, Patricia Patti Canaris, who lives in Hamilton.
The seven Germeraad children had a wonderful childhood, enjoying the freedom to roam the ranch all day.
Don Germeraad developed an early interest in flying after seeing Charles Lindbergh when he came to Billings after the aviator’s famed solo flight across the Atlantic, according to a biography provided by Rocky.
The boy made a gas-powered model airplane and flew it for Fourth of July gatherings of neighbors on the ranch.
“When it ran out of gas, it crashed.” Carnaris said. Then Germeraad would build another one for the next year.
After high school, Germeraad enrolled at Billings Polytechnic Institute, which later was renamed Rocky Mountain College.
He arrived at the right time.
With war clouds gathering in the late 1930s, Rocky had a contract with the Civil Aeronautics Authority to train students for their private pilot licenses, Hargrove said.
Dick Logan, who Billings Logan International Airport is named for, also took an interest Germeraad, and hired him to work at the airport.
After graduating from Rocky in 1941, the young pilot joined the U.S. Navy. During World War II, he was a stateside test pilot before flying in the Pacific. He earned 13 Navy combat and service medals.
After the war, he got an aeronautical engineering degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston and then joined Convair Aircraft Corp. as a test pilot.
“In the 1950s, Convair was a household name like Boeing is now,” Hargrove said.
Germeraad was at the controls of the first flights of several of Convair’s new planes.
“It was very Chuck-Yeager, light-your-hair-on-fire, cool stuff,” Hargrove said.
When the U.S. manned space program started, Germeraad applied to become one of the first astronauts. He didn’t make the cut, but continued friendships with those who did.
He also helped design the flight control panel for the Mercury space capsule.
When he went to work for Lockheed, he worked on deep submersible vehicles and the external tanks for the first space shuttles.
Germeraad died in 1992.
The added space Rocky’s aviation program gains because of Germeraad’s bequest couldn’t come at a better time.
“Our program is growing and we have dreams of new equipment,” Hargrove said.
This fall, 36 new freshmen enrolled in the program, bringing the total number of students to 102, about 10 percent more than last fall.
With pilots in demand, those students should get jobs when they graduate.
A pilot shortage is the result of several things, Hargrove said.
As the economy has improved, more people are flying.
Five years ago, the federal government raised the mandatory pilot retirement age from 60 to 65. Fewer pilots retired then, but more are doing so now.
The armed forces, once a major supplier of pilots to civilian airline companies, are shrinking and the military keeping its pilots longer.
Hargrove gets calls all the time from airlines looking for pilots.
Many of his graduates first work as flight instructors for Rocky for a few months to accumulate flight hours and then go to work for an aviation company.
This spring, Rocky graduated 18 students. Most were pilots. Others were aviation management majors.