Lt. Col. Aronson, The Sky's No Limit
May 02, 2023
Twelve years ago, the Truckee Tahoe Airport sought ways to engage local youth. When they approached the Truckee’s Civil Air Patrol (CAP) for assistance, Lt. Col. Ken Aronson, a dedicated CAP volunteer who was then commander of the Tahoe Truckee Squadron, immediately came to mind.
Today, Ken and his wife, 2nd Lt. Rolann Aronson, a retired teacher, run the wildly popular Mission to Mars kids camps at the airport, offered through the Truckee Donner Recreation and Park District.
“The five spring and summer week-long space camps fill up in less than 5 minutes. There’s a waiting list every year,” Ken explains, his eyes bright.
Ken’s four-decade-long career with the railroad, his passion for aerospace, and Rolann’s teaching background made the couple an ideal choice for engaging local youth in STEAM activities at the airport. STEAM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering, aerospace (in this case, as opposed to the more common usage of “art”), and mathematics.
The program aligns with one of the three missions of CAP: to provide aerospace education. Mission to Mars perfectly fulfills this requirement, and all Ken had to do was revive Rolann’s space exploration curriculum.
Ken is a humble gentleman who is more than happy to chat about anything related to aerospace. So fervent is his passion for flight that he built his own RV-9A airplane—a 2-seater with a 28-foot wingspan. It resides in his Truckee Tahoe Airport hangar, which faces east, offering stunning views of Martis Peak.
“You order a kit, and they send you this box that’s about as big as this table. You open it, and pieces come flying out,” said Ken. “It’s well-engineered, and they send you all the instructions on how to build the plane. But then it gets a little complicated because, well, you need an engine. And I knew nothing about how to put an engine in a plane, so I asked around, read a book, and learned how to do it.”
In all, it took Ken 2,300 hours and six years to build his airplane. Currently, it’s logged over 500 hours on its Hobbs meter (an aircraft device that measures the time a craft’s engine has run). Ken took his plane on its maiden voyage seven years ago, on May 16, 2016.
He is one of those self-taught engineering prodigies who worked his way up rather than follow a traditional college pathway. Originally from San Jose, Ken showed an early interest in engineering, eventually settling on the railroad as his focus. He graduated from high school early, at 16 years old, and by 21, found himself in the office of San Francisco’s Train Master. Despite being told his resume would be discarded—they weren’t hiring—something about Ken stood out. He had used an alternate spelling of the word “welder,” which the Train Master pointed out, suggesting he check his spelling before submitting a resume. Ken confidently explained it was not an error, impressing the Train Master, who then sent him to the Oakland office. There, Ken was hired as a cabin cleaner.
Over the course of 40 years, he climbed his way up the ranks, taking engineering courses and eventually becoming a switchman, brakeman, conductor, and engineer. While his engineering curiosity was satisfied by his locomotive career, he continued to fuel his passion for flight. At just 19 years old, he obtained his pilot’s license, kicking off a lifetime of flying adventures. Today he is an avid volunteer at the airport, leading Truckee’s Civil Air Patrol and its Youth Cadet Program, taking children on flights through EAA’s Young Eagles program, and directing the Mission to Mars summer camp program with Rolann.
“On the first day of camp, we tell the kids we want to go to Mars. Since I am not walking or driving there, we will probably have to fly. That is why we are doing the camp at the airport,” explains Ken. “Throughout the camp, kids build rockets, make geodesic domes, create hydroponic systems, brainstorm ways to communicate with Martians, and so much more. It’s an incredible opportunity for our CAP cadets to develop leadership skills while guiding campers through the program.”
For five days, Mission to Mars campers, ages 8-12, engage in over 30 hands-on STEAM activities guided by a curriculum developed from Rolann’s GATE (Gifted Education) programming experience in Washoe County.
“In 12 years, we’ve never had a kid say they didn’t enjoy the camp. Some parents even reflect later that it’s the best camp their kids have ever participated in,” Ken proudly shares.
Witness first-hand what kids in the Mission to Mars program are accomplishing and have the opportunity to chat with Ken and Rolann, as well as CAP cadets, at the Truckee Tahoe Airshow & Family Festival on June 24, 2023. Learn more about how to register online for free parking, event entry, and a chance to win fabulous prizes at truckeetahoeairshow.com.
Story by: Tiffany Connolly/InBloom Marketing, Photo by: Tom Lippert