JOSEPH — Joseph Charter School’s aviation program is about to take off again, after nearly being grounded. The school has hired Alexis “Lexi” Rindfleisch as the new instructor.
“They can call me Mrs. R.,” she said. “It’s easier.”
The young woman from Riggins, Idaho, recently took over the 5-year-old aviation program, one of few such high school programs in the country.
“That’s one of the things I found so exciting is that I get to teach kids and be involved in aviation,” she said. “I didn’t even know programs like this existed.”
Neither she nor district Superintendent Lance Homan knew the number of high school aviation programs in the country, but they’re certain there aren’t many.
“It’s growing in popularity,” Homan said. “I’ve gotten emails from superintendents wanting to know about it.”
Since 2016, JCS has been preparing students interested in aerospace to take flight in its New Heights Aviation Program. Students develop skills for aeronautics both in the classroom and through hands-on experiments and construction of aircraft. They also are encouraged to develop skills that are necessary to be successful in the field such as communications, logistics and thinking outside of the box.
Construction of the Career and Technical Education Building at the school began in early April 2019. A Federal Aviation Administration-approved simulator was added. Wallowa and Enterprise high school students and community members were to be able to use the facilities by appointment.
Toby Koehn, a former instructor at JCS, got the program off to its start in 2016. Primarily a vocational agricultural instructor, he extended the program into aviation and manufacturing/engineering technology.
Koehn, who retired midway through last year, was followed by J.D. Clay, who kept the program going last year, Homan said. The program was cut back to just one class because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
Rindfleisch said she has only 15 students in the two aviation classes — Aviation 1 and Aviation 2 — as the program was on hold until she was hired.
“They didn’t know if they were going to have an aviation teacher, so they weren’t sure how many classes they would be able to offer,” she said. “Hopefully, next year the schedule will be designed so that the classes will be available to more.”
The first-year class caters primarily to freshmen and sophomores, while the second year is for juniors and seniors.
Rindfleisch always wanted to be a pilot, but she wanted more than that.
“My dad’s a pilot and he did a lot of backcountry flying when I was a kid in Idaho, mostly in the Frank Church/River of No Return Wilderness,” she said. “We lived about 15 miles upriver from Riggins. … I wanted to fly. … But I like to understand it. I took ground school in Hood River. … I told my dad, ‘I need to know how they work.’ If I fly in the backcountry and something breaks down, I need to know how to fix it.”
That led her to the two-year Aircraft Maintenance Technology program at Idaho State University in Pocatello.
“When I moved back to Idaho, I bought a house … and decided I was going to go back to school to continue my education,” she said. “Eight weeks later, I was accepted into the program at ISU.”
Rindfleisch was eager to get the job at Joseph.
“My husband’s cousin, who lives in Enterprise, said, ‘I’ve got this perfect job for you.’ So I talked to Lance Homan, the superintendent here, and sent him my resume, and he was like, ‘When can we meet?’”
Her husband, Josh Rindfleisch, is a freelance videographer/photographer, she said.
She also is working on her pilot’s license, but still lacks several hours in the air before that’s achieved.
Rindfleisch said that even once she gets her pilot’s license, she’s not sure she’ll be able to teach flying as part of the school program. She did say it’s conceivable she could teach the ground school portion of learning to fly.
“I don’t know if that’s something we can do on school time, but we may be able to introduce them to pilot’s certification and if that’s something they want to do, we could help them get scholarships,” she said. “Obviously, that would be working with their families.”
In addition to the simulator — which still needs to be calibrated before it’s usable — there are “parts of” three aircraft in the CTE Building. One of them is a Fisher Experimental with a Subaru automobile motor that has been retrofitted for use in the aircraft.
The students will be learning about aircraft mechanics in a truly hands-on way at the school. Rindfleisch said that once a plane is airworthy, the wings can be removed and it can be taken to the Joseph State Airport to fly. But that’s still in the future.
She hopes to see the school’s aviation program expand to K-12.
“The goal is to expose kids to all types of aviation, from the mechanics side, the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the weather side, the pilot’s side, air-traffic control — all of those pieces,” she said. “That would be a beginning-aviation course work and classes and then actually dive into what they’re really interested in. Eventually, I’d like this to be a K-12 aviation program.”
Plans for the latter are underway.
“We’re already working on little lesson plans for (younger students) for this year, but hopefully it will be something that they do more often,” she said.
‘Community of aviators’
Two of the students with Rindfleisch during the Sept. 23 interview covered the gamut from “would like to” take aviation to one who already is.
“I have pilots in my class,” Rindfleisch said.
“I remember graduating from aviation my freshman year,” said Jett Peterson, who proudly showed off his student pilot’s license. “It’s just like a learner’s permit only to fly.”
Savanah Seeley, on the other hand, has yet to try her wings in the program.
“I want to take it, but I haven’t yet,” she said.
The two youths — and the other aviation students — are part of an active aviation community in Wallowa County. Although there are but the two public airports — in Joseph and Enterprise — there are a number of private landing strips scattered around the county.
“This is such a community of aviators. After I get myself a little more with them and their vision for it as well, and where they see themselves fitting,” Rindfleisch said. “I certainly am not an expert in all things aviation and I want the people who are helping, as well, and involved with the kids and getting them excited. It’s going to be a community process. In terms of the ground school, they can take ground school and take flying lessons at the same time.”