Learning to Fly with South Dakota State University


Collage image of students at ACE camp as well as an interior shot of a flight simulator.

Have you ever dreamed of flying? Of sitting in the cockpit of a plane, large or small, with the world stretching out beneath you?

Would you like to make that dream a reality?

If you think that sounds amazing then the Aviation program and ACE Camp at the South Dakota State University might be perfect for you.

To learn more about both programs, we spoke with Cody Christensen, Ph.D., the program coordinator for SDSU’s Aviation Program. Christensen teaches lecture classes and helps out with flight instruction. He’s certainly got the chops for it. He is a pilot and flight instructor and flew commercially before returning to South Dakota to teach.


A screenshot image from our interview with Dr. Cody Christensen.

Click a button to watch our interview with Cody Christensen:




Christensen told us the aviation program is unique in that it takes students with zero flight experience and turns them into pilots for multi-engine planes. The program is a collegiate, four-year program, and students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in aviation.

Christensen told us that after students graduate from the program they move on to be flight instructors, corporate pilots, military pilots, or they work for airlines.

SDSU also offers an ACE Camp, a four-day, residence summer program for high school students. ACE is short for Aerospace Career Education Camp. Christensen said it gives students an opportunity to see whether they would really like a job in aviation.

At ACE Camp, students get to explore what it’s like to be a pilot, from small, regional airport pilots to big commercial airliners. They participate in numerous hands-on activities, like building and launching model rockets, getting into the workings of jet engines, exploring F-16 fighter jets, and getting behind the controls of an aircraft.

Christensen recommends that interested students at least enjoy math and science and have a strong foundation in both subjects. Knowing calculus is helpful; however, the ability to solve problems is vital. Pilots have to be able to make decisions on the fly. He later told us that some of the best pilots are actually not risk-takers. They’re the opposite; they’re pilots who know how to mitigate risks and deal with issues calmly.

Out of curiosity, we asked Christensen what drew him to flying in the first place and what he still likes about it after so many years of experience.

He told us that he was first drawn to flying machines as a small child. Then, he lived in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and almost every day a helicopter used to land near his house. As he grew up that fascination remained, though he discovered that he was much more interested in planes than helicopters.

As for what he enjoys about being a pilot, he had this to say: “I love that every day is something different. Some days you can wake up in California and you can be in the fog, and the next day you might end up in Denver, in the mountains, and later that same day you could end up in a blizzard, you could end up in Phoenix where it’s a hundred degrees…so really the opportunity to grow, the opportunity to see the country, the opportunity to meet new people is phenomenal in our industry.”

Before we let Christensen go, we asked if he had any final advice for students. In response, he told us that if students want to get an early head-start on becoming a pilot or working in the aviation industry, reach out to your local airport. He said, “I’ve never known a pilot that doesn’t like to talk about aviation and doesn’t like to talk about flying.”



Erin Skoog
Fast Forward: Volume 2 Issue 7 - Aviation