Saturday, March 29

Come slip the surly bonds of earth for mere pennies pound. On Saturday, March 29 starting at 9 a.m., and again on April 26, Mercer County Community College invites you to step on the scale and launch into the skies at its Flight Fair. Held at Trenton-Mercer Airport in Ewing, at the college’s hangar, the fair offers a 20-minute airborne view of their county and its environs for 20 cents for each pound a passenger weighs. The minimum cost is $8, the maximum $22, and the college guarantees that each passenger’s weight is held in strictest secrecy.

Proceeds go to benefit the college’s flight team, which took first place in the regional competition this past year. For further information call 609-570-3439, or visit

Even more impressive than the fair’s low price or the achievements of the flight team is its sponsor. Mercer County Community College is one of only a handful of county colleges nationwide that actually has a full aviation department with the entire range of course offerings, which it has offered for most of its 35 year history. Further, Mercer was the first community college to gain accreditation by the Council on Aviation Accreditation for its entire program.

Joe Blasenstein, director of the MCCC Flight Department has been laboring to promote and expand the college’s aviation offerings for the past 25 years. A self-confessed aviation addict, Blasenstein began his love of airplanes as a mechanic before earning his wings. It has been noted by his fellow faculty members that "Joe is really only happy when he is up there flying."

MCCC’s fleet. Not only do students learn from MCCC instructors, they fly in the 11 airplanes that make up the college’s own fleet. Planes range from a large twin engine to the small and agile Cessna 152. Passengers on the fair rides will be flying in a four-seater, allowing the front passenger, next to the pilot, to don the head phones and hear the air tower communications. For most novices it’s an experience requiring a translator.

The major reason for the near-uniqueness of MCCC’s aviation program is cash. Huge amounts of it are required to maintain the planes, pay airport rental, and pay the ever spiraling cost of fuel. Students taking any of the aviation courses pay $92 per hour for plane rental, plus another $22 in flight instructor fees. This still leaves the college providing the heavy end of the fiscal heft to keep the fleet aloft.

Despite the cost, MCCC has for decades made the financial commitment to this very practical and rewarding program of occupational study.

Aero education. If the success of a school’s graduates is any measure, the MCCC aviation program has proved an excellent investment.

Ninety-seven percent of Mercer’s aviation students pass the FAA’s private, commercial, and instrument examinations on the first try. Traditionally 80 students a semester pack the aviation courses, many of whom will parlay their training into lucrative jobs throughout the air transport industry. Many others, simply lured by the thrill of flight, will take the basic private pilot’s training course. Gaining this license demands 35 hours of flight time. Most, however, cannot achieve the necessary proficiency in that time, and 60 flight hours is not unusual for many students.

For those seeking an aviation career, Mercer’s department offers three courses of study, blending several other associated disciplines into the final degree. The 65-credit aviation flight technology program trains aspiring commercial pilots, equipping them with the necessary knowledge to pass the Federal Aviation Administration exams. The minimum-required 190 in flight hours plus simulator instruction is seldom sufficient for most students to meet course goals. This makes the $114 per flight hour a true career investment. Meanwhile the student is also cracking books for mandated courses in English composition, trigonometry, physics, and airplane components.

Aviation flight technology graduates, for another 31 credits, may further their aero education and qualify to become flight instructors. Mercer also offers full courses of study in aviation management, for those who would rather run an airline than a plane. The aviation customer relations program opens doors to travel agencies and various major airline slots.

Flight career paths are becoming increasingly streamlined as the airlines’ demand for pilots reaches near desperation. One Mercer aviation flight technology grad was recently hired by a Costa Rican airline despite that he had only 250 hours of flight time. Similarly, United States commercial airlines, which have historically demanded a thousand hours for entry level pilots, are dropping that number. As a symbol of this career potential, the MCCC flight instruction faculty boasts equal gender representation, with Blasenstein and flight fair organizer Jerry Kuhl joined in the air by instructors Joan Jones and Diane Loving.

Flight team fight. What would college life be with out competitive sport? To show MCCC’s right stuff the school’s 17-pilot flight team came away this past season with a regional championship, qualifying it to compete for top nationwide honors.

Flight competitions today are more sedate and cerebral than the old-style barnstorming aerobatics. Spectators will not view an array of loop-de-loops, spirals, and earthward plunges saved at the last split second. Instead, competition judges are scoring more on precision and judgment. Contestants may be asked to drop a given item from the plane on an exact spot. Or they may be set in a simulated dangerous situation involving not just the plane but its passengers, and asked to respond optimally.

Rather surprisingly, all this amazing aero opportunity right in Mercer County’s own yard has remained fairly much hidden under a bushel. "We send posters and brochures to the area high schools, and try to make presentations, but for some reason we cannot get past the guidance counselors," says Regina Dripps, aviation department secretary. Hopefully the upcoming flight fairs will attract a new crop of would-be pilots and airline executives. Certainly the thrill is infectious and the programs stand waiting.

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