Robert Silk
Robert Silk

It's a clear, windless day over the front range of the Colorado Rockies. A perfect day, in fact, for flying.

Sitting at the helm of a single-engine, twin-seat aircraft approximately 2,500 feet above Centennial Airport just south of Denver, I crane my neck for views of the mountains to the west and of the golf course just below me to the south. To the east sprawl the Great Plains. No clouds block the view.

Soon, however, the time for relaxing is over, and I begin my descent into Centennial. The runway sits directly in front of me, but I can't seem to get aligned. My feet are heavy on the rudder pedals, causing me to veer right and then left in turns. Meanwhile, I have just as clunky a touch with the controller, so I alternate between pulling the nose too high and pushing it too low.

Ultimately, I miss the runway, but with the assistance of my flight instructor, Jon Caples, I land safely on a strip of grass.

Sounds scary, right?

Well, not so much. This was actually my first experience in an FAA-certified flight simulator. As such, the danger wasn't real. But I emphatically learned during those memorable 15 minutes that I have a long way to go before I'm ready to pilot a plane. Even so, I got out the of the Redbird FMX simulator wanting to try again.

The flight simulator is just one of the attractions at the new Wings Over the Rockies Exploration of Flight museum at Centennial Airport, which opened over the summer. And while it surely would please museum management that the facility can excite a middle-aged man like me about the joy of flying, Wings Over the Rockies has a broader mission for its campus.

"To really excite the next generation of pilots, mechanics and air traffic controllers, you have to get kids into the cockpit early and help them find something that feels right to them," explained Ben Theune, the organization's director of marketing, as he showed me around the museum.

Far from lost on Wings Over the Rockies management is the worker shortage that the commercial aviation industry faces in the years ahead. The most publicized of those shortfalls is the pilot shortage, which has already taken a toll on U.S. regional airlines, forcing the weakest among them to close while compelling stronger regionals to upsize aircraft for the sake of operational efficiency, a state of affairs that has reduced service in small air markets.

According to the University of North Dakota's 2016 Pilot Supply Forecast, the U.S. faces a shortage of 3,500 commercial pilots by 2020. And according to Boeing, worldwide demand for new commercial pilots over the next 20 years is 635,000. Civil pilot demand in North America over that time frame is 206,000, with the large majority of those being for commercial operators.

But pilot supply isn't the only workforce shortage threatening U.S. airlines. The industry is also experiencing a dearth of mechanics as airlines grow and technicians retire faster than they are being replaced. Last year, the global consulting firm Oliver Wyman forecasted a shortfall of approximately 8,000 technicians at U.S. airlines in 2027 as demand outstrips supply by 9%.

Boeing, meanwhile, says North America will need 189,000 new commercial technicians in the next 20 years.

The new Wings Over the Rockies campus (the institution also runs the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum on the former Lowry Air Force Base in suburban Denver) has been planned with the long-term workforce demands of the aviation industry very much in mind.

To wit, the Exploration of Flight museum is just the first phase of Wings Over the Rockies' planned build-out at Centennial. Already set to join the campus is a public charter middle school, the Colorado Skies Academy, which plans to open next year with 225 students.

The school will offer a curriculum focused on the aviation and aerospace industries. Proposed school projects include designing gliders and constructing experiments that would be submitted to the International Space Station for actual application.

Wings Over the Rockies is also in discussion with Denver-area aviation and aeronautics programs, including ones at Metropolitan State University of Denver and the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology. Potentially, said former Wings Over the Rockies CEO Greg Anderson, the visionary for the institution's Centennial Airport campus, Metropolitan State could set up a satellite campus at Centennial.

Wings Over the Rockies also has plans to build what it will call its Black Sky Gallery, essentially a space wing of the flight museum that will augment the existing Blue Sky Gallery.

The entire campus, meanwhile, will offer direct access to the Centennial Airport taxiway and a view of the airport's three runways, which see a combined 340,000 annual takeoffs and landings. And, of course, the airport already houses a range of flight schools.

Combine all those facilities into one place, and it's easy to see the holistic strategy Wings Over the Rockies has developed for fueling interest in aviation careers.

Indeed, in fund-raising literature, Wings Over the Rockies refers to the all-inclusive campus as a "unique to the nation" concept.

"For sure, we're not going to populate the major airlines or meet Boeing's projections," Anderson told me. "But we can be a focal point and a model."

Anderson stressed that it's not just the future of the commercial aviation industry that the new campus will focus on but also the broader future of the aerospace sector, including the space industry. Colorado has the country's second largest aerospace economy, trailing only California. All told, according to state promotional literature, more than 400 aerospace companies dot the Colorado landscape, among them Lockheed Martin in the Denver exurbs, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder and Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, which develops unmanned aircraft at its Aurora campus.

Also in Aurora is Buckley Air Force Base, while the U.S. Air Force Academy sits less than hour south of Centennial Airport (keep your fingers crossed for light traffic) in the northern Colorado Springs area. Meanwhile, on the commercial aviation side, Denver Airport is the fifth most trafficked in the U.S. and the 20th most trafficked in the world.

Combine that much aviation and aerospace activity with lots of fair weather and clear skies -- and with Centennial Airport itself, which is the second busiest private airport in the U.S. -- and it's hard to argue with Anderson's belief that there's no better place to locate an all-encompassing facility for the development of aviation and aerospace industry professionals.

Still, Anderson's hope is that Wings Over the Rockies can serve as a model for other organizations and communities to follow. Even with so much of its Centennial Airport campus still in the planning stages, Wings Over the Rockies has received inquiries from other airports in Colorado and beyond about pursuing similar concepts, he said.

For now, Wings Over the Rockies itself must rely solely on its Exploration of Flight museum as well as its partnership with certified flight trainers and the Centennial-based Aspen Flying Club, to demonstrate not only the wonders of flight, but also the various career paths in aviation.

The highlight of my museum visit was probably the flight simulator, but I was also on-hand to watch as a 1942 DC-3 taxied into the hangar that houses the museum, where it will stay through the end of the year.

In addition, I visited the museum's virtual reality lounge, where a headset took me back into the skies above Centennial, this time to experience stunts performed by a member of the Metropolitan State University Aerobatics and Glider Club.

From there, I went to the hangar's second level for views of the airfield and also to listen to the near continuous live radio feed between pilots and the Centennial air traffic control tower.

In the middle of the second floor sits a storyboard that is central to the museum's mission. The exhibit lays out the various aviation career options, including, for example, being a pilot, a controller, a mechanic, an airport worker or an aircraft designer.

The storyboard doesn't list aviation writer. Hope it stays that way. Job security is nice.

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