Smoothing the shift to unmanned

Published: 22 May 2015

WW - 20150519 - John Bridewell

An aviation enthusiast from an early age, Professor of Aviation John Bridewell is in demand as the leader of UAS research at the University of North Dakota, working to enhance training efforts for military and commercial use.

What got you started?

My uncle, Joe, took me flying when I was 12. During high school, I knew I wanted to fly, so I took a job at the local airport doing anything they wanted me to do. They paid me by providing me flight lessons. In 1973 I graduated from Louisiana Tech University where I was active in Alpha Eta Rho and the National Intercollegiate Flying Association. My first paid flight position was as a flight instructor at Louisiana Tech. I enrolled at Northrop Institute of Technology to obtain my A&P [airframe and powerplant] mechanic certificate because I wanted to become a bush pilot. I took a break in my mechanic training to fly in Brazil, but later accepted a flight instructor position in Torrance, California. An opportunity arose to fly in Alaska and I was hired to be a pilot/mechanic for an Alaskan fishing business. My job was to fly a Fairchild C-82 with a Westinghouse J34 jet on top. We made history by flying 20,000lb [9t] of salmon off of 3,000ft [900m] gravel strips. A little networking resulted in a King Air pilot position in Rapid City, South Dakota. Upon completing my masters degree, I had heard that the University of North Dakota [UND] had an aviation programme, but did not know a lot about it. In January of 1985, I started to work at UND as a $6 per hour, part-time flight instructor. I got wrapped up in the excitement of John D Odegard’s visionary collegiate aviation entrepreneurialism. That same year I became a supervisor of flight and then an assistant chief instructor. Bill Shea, aviation chair, called me in for a discussion to talk about my career as a professor.

It sounds a diverse experience

I found time to instruct in King Airs in the early 1990s with UND’s China Air Lines programme. I was coach of the UND Flying Team for six years. Otherwise, I teach in a classroom environment. At some point, a professional transformation took place. Whereas I had been a pilot who was also an educator, I became an educator who was also a pilot.

What UAS research are you conducting?

In 2010, I accepted an opportunity to expand my aviation experiences as a part of a research endeavour related to unmanned aircraft systems. I am the principal investigator for a cooperative agreement with the Air Force Research Laboratory [AFRL] where my colleague, Leah Rowe, and I have established a positive, collaborative relationship to enhance the training efforts for medium-altitude, long-endurance [MALE] remotely piloted aircraft [RPA]. We have led creative and enthusiastic teams at both UND and AFRL to create new tools and teaching methodologies that we believe will have an impact on non-military, governmental, or commercial/civilian uses of MALE RPAs. Specifically, we are examining the use of complementary simulators to reduce costs, shorten training time, and aid in the retention of the knowledge and skills needed to fly a MALE RPA.

What’s the most difficult part?

It is difficult to manage all of the opportunities that have arisen within UAS. Potential industry partners are coming to UND on a regular basis with some kind of research opportunity or business idea/endeavour. Even though it is a lot of work, I have to admit it is fun to brief first-time visitors to North Dakota on our aviation activities. UAS is here to stay. Unfortunately, I believe the innovators and entrepreneurs are way ahead of the FAA and collegiate aviation. We need to be finding ways to adapt our programmes to meet the future needs for UAS pilots, sensor operators, mission commanders and data analysts. We need to recognise that there has been a shift in the aviation paradigm. 

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