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Future Takes Flight: ‘I Will Do Whatever It Takes’

Nolte Cunningham’s first experience on a plane was really bad. He was about 6 years old, on a flight taking his sister to the hospital, when he looked out at the wing and saw fuel leaking from it. He alerted the crew, which made an emergency landing and patched the leak.

Nolte recalls it as a “horrible experience.” But it pushed him toward his chosen career of maintaining and repairing aircraft. Or, as he puts it more bluntly, the mechanic who will “make sure people don’t die.”

The Kenowa Hills student just graduated from the aviation maintenance technology program at the Kent Career Tech Center. Next fall he will enter Western Michigan University’s College of Aviation, where he will pursue a bachelor’s degree in aviation maintenance. This will qualify him to seek FAA certification to work for airlines, corporations and government agencies.

He’d love to be the go-to mechanic for a corporate jet, he said, and the guy who makes sure that wing doesn’t leak.

“Nothing’s worse than seeing a plane crash” in the news, Nolte says. “I would like to be the type of person that prevents that.”

Odds are Nolte will realize his goal.

Two years ago he wasn’t even sure what he wanted to do with his life, much less where he wanted to go to college. Now he’szeroed in on being an aircraft maintenance technician and has covered his entire WMU tuition with scholarships. All this despite a host of personal challenges — including the need for that scary flight to the hospital.

How’s he made it happen? Nolte smiles and says, “When I want to do something, I will do whatever it takes to get it done.”

Nolte Cunningham learned to maintain and repair aircraft engines like this one at Gerald R. Ford International Airport
Nolte Cunningham learned to maintain and repair aircraft engines like this one at Gerald R. Ford International Airport

‘Love at First Sight’

Nolte was one of 42 students in this year’s Tech Center AMT program, whose classroom is a 20,000-square-foot airplane hangar at the Gerald R. Ford International Airport. That’s where he learned to work on aircraft like Cessna 150s, a U.S. Army helicopter and the afterburner of an F-15 fighter jet. He took apart and rebuilt engines, safety-checked plane components and taxied single-engine aircraft.

His blue eyes shine as he shows a visitor the gleaming beauties he’s worked on in this spacious aircraft lair, while planes roar off on nearby runways. The first time he walked in here as a junior, he says, it was “love at first sight.”

“It really is a cool feat to be able to fly, and especially work on things that fly,” says Nolte, who smiles as easily as he talks. “People are like, ‘Oh, airplanes, sweet, they go up in the air and they come back down.’ But it’s cool being able to know how it all works.”

A self-described “hands-on kind of guy,” Nolte learned how it all works with a demanding daily routine: waking up at 5 a.m., going to Kenowa Hills High School then taking two buses to arrive at the airport by 7:14 a.m. He’d then head back to Kenowa Hills 90 minutes later for the rest of his classes – and then to an after-school job.

He also learned how to pull down financial aid through a program called Edudaris, a scholarship planning tool offered to Tech Center students. At first he hated the work, he admitted, but after writing a 45-minute application essay returned a $500 scholarship, he liked it better. Eventually he got all four years covered at about $14,000 per year, he says.

Sleep? Who Needs Sleep?  

Somewhere in there Nolte also found time to coach a Tech Center AMT team in a competition at WMU, where students do preflight safety checks and identify aircraft types from photographs. After competing as a student his junior year, he decided to coach the team this year. The team finished third, and one student placed first in preflight checks.

He’ll coach again next year, and has been invited to apply for the preflight portion of WMU’s nationally renowned Sky Broncos competitive flight team. Making the team requires him to study a list of about 800 aircraft in order to identify by sight at least 140 of them. He’s studying four to five hours a day while working full-time at Millennium Auto Wash and Detail Center.

Sleep? Usually three or four hours a night, Nolte says.

Did we mention he also went with a Kenowa Hills robotics team to a national competition in New Orleans, and for which he raised $600?

“It’s a lot of work,” he says with his easy grin. “I’m very good at time management.”

That and a lot more, says Todd Olson, his instructor at the AMT program. He says Nolte is “making his dreams become reality.”

“This is an amazing young man,” says OIson, one of three instructors in the program. He credits Nolte’s “positive mental attitude and his leadership by example, and his willingness to roll up his shirtsleeves and make it happen… I’m excited for his future, to see how it unfolds.”

Nolte Cunningham
Nolte Cunningham

A Sister’s Challenges, a Brother’s Dreams

For his part, Nolte says he’s gotten lots of support from Olson, and from Martin Coaker, an FAA safety inspector from Sparta and assistant coach on the WMU preflight team. He has been inspired as well by his mother, Dori Rothenthaler, and his father, Jason Tieri.

He’s also called on a determined mindset to not just accomplish his aviation dreams but overcome personal challenges. Those include his parents’ divorce when he was a young boy, and, around the same time, the health struggles of his older sister Taylor.

At around 8 years old, Taylor suffered a brain aneurysm that left her unable to walk or talk. Now 23, she has required constant at-home care since then, a good deal of it from Nolte. That was what put her on the plane to the hospital, when Nolte spotted the wing leaking fuel.

For all his airborne dreams – he’ll earn a pilot’s license at WMU – Taylor’s life in a bed and wheelchair is never far from his mind.

“It’s difficult, knowing the things I’m going through she’s never going to experience,” he says somberly. “She’s never going to experience college, having kids, buying her own house, having a husband, none of that. That’s what really hurts.”

Still, he says he is thankful for all that has brought him to where he is now – graduated from high school, working on planes, and preparing to take off for college next fall.

“I cannot wait,” he says of that day. “I’m so excited.”

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KCTC Aviation Maintenance Technology program

WMU College of Aviation

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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