Mission to MTU
Magazine Contributor Recalls Aviation Recruitment Trips
March 1, 2021
In Upper Michigan there is a delightful place called the Keweenaw Peninsula. Keweenaw is a Native American word
that roughly translates as "portage."
Over 7,000 years ago the area became a source of copper originally mined
by a group called the Algonquians. Copper taken from the Keweenaw by prehistoric miners has been found as far away as Arkansas and Oregon.
By the middle of the 19th Ccentury, copper mining was underway on an industrial scale. In 1885, the "Michigan Mining School" was founded in Houghton. Late in 1950's it became Michigan Technological University.
MTU produces some first-class civil
engineers. I've worked with many "Tech"
alumni and was impressed by the quality
of their education. Back in the day, our firm regularly recruited at MTU. It is one of
the few schools that offers undergraduate courses in airport design, but Houghton is a long way from the Twin Cities.
My flying skills made recruiting at MTU
a great thing for me. Air access to the Keweenaw is provided by the Houghton County Memorial Airport, a first-class
facility with airline
service and good access for General Aviation. I could fly there, do some recruiting, and enjoy a couple days in paradise.
An annual snowfall average of almost 20 feet is about the only thing that makes life in Houghton less than idyllic. For an airport, dealing with that kind of snow requires an effort on a heroic scale. Houghton County is up to that challenge. They have the equipment. Even the crash/rescue vehicle is track mounted. The plows and blowers are industrial strength too, but
the snow removal process made one of my trips interesting.
Typically, a recruiting foray included a
person from Human Resources and me. Sometimes one of our Tech alumni went and often we invited client staff to accompany us. As far as I was concerned, the more the merrier. Four passengers or so allowed me to fly my favorite airplane of that era, the Piper Chieftain (PA31-350). The company flew airplanes that handled like a BMW or had the luxury of a Town Car. The Chieftain was a flying Suburban. Solid, reliable, efficient, and capable of handling just about any weather. It could be configured like a little airliner with 10 forward facing seats. All the luxury of a commercial flight except for the two-year-old kicking the back of your seat. Normal procedure had four passengers in "club seating," plus two in
the cockpit and the "potty" way back.
The usual itinerary included interviews and a guest spot in an airport class. This always involved staying a night or two and eating at some of the great local spots.
A good place for food and drink is a bar/restaurant called "The Library," which enables students to truthfully answer parental inquiries about where they were with "I'm at the library."
Our first trips were back in the days before XM weather and all that. To get updated information you called "Flight Service" or "Flight Watch" on the radio. On the day of this trip, Houghton was forecasted to be about 800 feet overcast with unrestricted visibility and tops about 6,000 feet. Perfect! A cold front had gone through the day before dropping close to 18 inches of new snow on Houghton, but FSS said snow removal was in progress. After takeoff I called for updated weather and the destination was reporting low visibility in blowing snow, but a later update said visibility was unrestricted. When I tuned up the automated weather broadcast before starting the approach visibility had again deteriorated. What the heck was going on?
Of course, I flew a great approach. We were under the cloud ceiling at 800 feet above the ground as predicted and could see all the way to Lake Superior. With the runway clearly in view I was wondering about the visibility when I noticed a big piece of equipment literally "blowing snow." It was on the shoulder of the other runway, but not too far from the weather station which was down wind. The blower would be going by the station and a few minutes later the visibility would be reported obscured by what the archaic shorthand of aviation weather reports calls BS.
After landing, my companions climbed in the rental car and went to town while I
saw to stowing the airplane in a hangar.
As it was being tugged indoors, a line of
six driveway snow blowers and operators emerged from an adjacent hangar. They proceeded to a part of the ramp still covered with snow, peeled off into a perfect right echelon, and started blowing. At the end of the ramp their leader did a 180 and the "wingmen" crossed over into left echelon, and so forth. Seemed kind of strange when the big blower was handy. When he finished, I questioned the tug driver who said a manufacturer paid the airport to test domestic snow blowers. The six-ship formation was trying out some prototypes before they hit the market. A couple days later when we pulled the airplane out
and headed home, all the airport's paved surfaces were clear and dry.
Copper mining is long gone from the Keweenaw. Besides the school, local economic activity includes tourists and lumbering. To avoid cabin fever, they play a lot of hockey. Houghton claims to be the
birthplace of professional hockey. In 1903 the "Portage Lakes Club" was the first to
pay all its players. Home ice was the "Amphidrome" in downtown, which was destroyed by fire in 1927. It was replaced by the "New Amphidrome" on the same site. Now known as "Dee Stadium," it hosts leagues from peewee to over 50. The players are all amateurs these days, but hockey is still serious business in "Copper County."