Rocky Mountain College’s aviation program, in its present form, began 25 years ago, although aviation has been part of the school a lot longer.
To mark the quarter-century anniversary, program officials organized a two-day all-class aviation reunion that started Friday. They also used the occasion to dedicate the program’s expanded facilities.
On Friday afternoon, about two-dozen faculty members, administrators, alumni and guests held a ceremony to dedicate the Donald Germeraad Flight Simulation Training Center at the Rocky Mountain College Aviation Hall. The center is housed in a building a half-block west of the college campus.
A $38,000 donation from Germeraad’s estate allowed the aviation program to update and expand into the other half of the building, which previously held a day care center. Design work on the project was done by Billings architect Wayne Gustafson.
The new section of the building contains two flight simulators, with space for a third. It also holds offices and a sitting area, and fits in seamlessly with the rest of the building’s interior.
Framed photos on the walls feature planes, including some that Germeraad flew as a test pilot. The Billings native graduated from Rocky, known then as Billings Polytechnic Institute, in 1941.
His widow, Esther “Pete” Germeraad, who lives in White Salmon, Wash., spoke at the ceremony about her husband of 47 years and his love of flying. She attended the brief gathering with her daughter, Ann Cline.
When her husband was a child, she said, he was convinced he was going to be a railroad engineer. But then aviator Charles Lindberg came to town after his famed solo flight across the Atlantic, and that changed everything: Germeraad was determined to become a pilot.
He graduated from Senior High School in 1938 and to earn money, he lived up at Logan Airport and did anything he could for the pilots.
“He’d help them spruce up the wings, pull fabric over them and paint them,” she said. “Anything to be near an airplane and maybe get a ride.”
One pilot told Germeraad to go to Billings Polytechnic to learn how to fly, and he took the advice. After he graduated, Germeraad joined the U.S. Navy.
During World War II he was a stateside test pilot before flying in the Pacific, where he earned 13 Navy combat and service medals.
When Germeraad got out of the service, both Boeing and the Convair Aircraft Corp. wanted to hire him, his widow said.
“Boeing was in rainy country and Convair was in sunny California, so I guess you know where we went,” she said.
After he started there, Germeraad realized he needed additional engineering education, and he went back to school to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston where he earned a bachelor’s degree.
Back at Convair, “he flew almost anything he could get his hands on and flight-tested in many of the programs,” Pete Germeraad said.
General Dynamics bought out Convair, and Germeraad got the opportunity to develop the booster rocket that propelled the first seven astronauts into space, she said. He also helped design the flight control panel for the Mercury space capsule.
Germeraad then worked for Lockheed for 17 years before he retired. He died in 1992.
Dan Hargrove, Rocky professor and aviation director, told his audience that two big eras in aviation were the jet age of the 1950s and the space age of the 1960s.
“Not only was he there,” Hargrove said of Germeraad, “he was leading the way. You’ve heard of Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield. His name was in there, too.”
Before she spoke to the group, Pete Germeraad said she thought her husband would be pleased that he was able to give a boost to Rocky’s aviation program.
“He would want to see that the experience of flying was made available to young people," she said. "That would mean more to him than the fact that it’s named after him.”
As for the program itself, Hargrove said that in 1988, the college expanded to include some professional programs, and that included an upgrade to the aviation program. As the Cold War was winding down, the military wasn’t producing as many pilots as it once did.
“The national demand for pilots was increasing as the military supply was decreasing,” he said. “So that was part of it.”
The program saw 40 to 50 students throughout most of the 1990s, Hargrove said, but it now has 111 students, just over 10 percent of the entire student body.
“We’re as big today as we’ve ever been,” he said.
The college focuses on preparing pilots for a variety of jobs, working for the military, hospitals, corporations or airlines or as crop dusters.
“Other schools say ‘come here and be a great airline pilot,’ ” Hargrove said. “We say ‘come here and you’ll be prepared for a broad path.’ ”
Lonn Saunders, 42, a 2000 graduate of the aviation program, lives in Billings and works for First Interstate Bank. He liked the tight-knit group of students he found in the program and the college, and he found it was a great foundation toward his goal of working as a pilot.
Now on an advisory committee for the program, he said he’s glad the school has kept up on technology in the changing industry.
“Aviation is something where you don’t want to be left behind,” he said.
He was pleased to attend the all-class reunion and catch up with friends he online often connects with on social media.
“You lose track of people, and I’m so excited to hear about what other people are doing,” Saunders said. “I’ve got friends who fight fires, fly an air ambulance, fly for the airlines, and I’ve got buddies flying in other parts of the world.”