There are more than 1,500 seniors in Des Moines Public Schools poised to graduate later this month, but Richard Link is not among them, even though he’s 76 years old. He’s a freshman – in the Central Campus Aviation Technology Academy.

Link started the program in January after getting wind of it on social media. He once worked in the aircraft industry, circa half a century ago after he mustered out of the US Army. Now he volunteers at the Iowa Aviation Heritage Museum in Ankeny and wants to learn more about aircraft maintenance to make himself more useful there.

“I graduated from high school in Maxwell, Iowa in 1960,” Link told us after class last week at the aviation lab on County Line Road. “I was the first of six siblings to get my diploma. Our parents grew up riding to school on horseback.”

Link went on to Ellsworth Junior College before enlisting in the military. In 1966, Boeing hired him as a toolmaker and he moved to the Pacific Northwest. He’s married to an East High grad. Link and his wife Linda have two sons, four grandchildren and a great-grandchild, which gives him plenty to talk about with his much younger classmates at lunchtime.

Even his primary teacher, Keith Boot, is only half his age.

“Richard is a pleasure to have in class,” Boot said. “His previous (Boeing) and current (the aviation museum) experience both help the class better understand the industry.”

We met Link shortly after a 60 Minutes segment about slipshod safety maintenance in the commercial airline industry that served to underscore the importance of an FAA-certified high school curriculum that’s the only one of its type in the Midwest.

This is no place for absent-minded types who want to daydream their way through class designing and flight testing paper airplanes behind the instructor’s back.

Students get hands-on training in complete assembly/disassembly of piston, turbine and prop aircraft engines that are part of the program’s own fleet of aircraft, ranging from helicopters to a Learjet, housed in the hangar adjacent to the classrooms. There is also a flight simulator on site for pilot training. Link said he’d like to get some time in there. When he was at Boeing, he participated in an afterhours employee flying club.

“Next year we’re expanding to 9th graders,” said Boot. By then Link will be 77, but he’ll be back.

“Oh yes,” he said. “I intend to go all the way and get my AA (Associate Arts) degree.”

Instead of a freshman, maybe Link’s status should be in a class by itself: Lifelong Learner. He’s living proof that the sky is the limit at DMPS.

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