Geography students attend class in the sky

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Students from David Kelly’s remote sensing geography course had a rare opportunity Thursday to climb into an airplane and experience geography from the sky. The students boarded a plane at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and spent the afternoon learning how remote sensing works first-hand.

Kelly teaches a geographical remote sensing course every other year at St. Thomas, and this is not the first time he has brought his students into the air. Being above the ground is a key element in remote sensing, because it involves aerial photography of the land, he said.

“Basically, what we’re doing today is having the students gather air interpretations of different areas,” Kelly said. “They are looking for key geographical features in the land.”

Although attending class in an airplane may be a rare opportunity for students, it is a “back-to-basics” experience in terms of remote sensing.

“Aerial photos of this area date back to the 1930s and it’s all pretty well archived,” Kelly said. “Now it’s all computer interpretation of satellite imagery.”

Pilot Mike Heath of Twin Cities Aviation was the pilot for the afternoon. With more than 10 years in the cockpit, Heath has flown a number of different aircraft, including commercial. But he said he enjoys flying in situations like these the most.

“This is the fun part for me,” Heath said. “Taking people up and showing them something they’ve never seen before.”

That was especially true for junior Lisa Grundtner.

“I have only been on a plane once before, so this was pretty cool for me,” Grundtner said.

Kelly said he hopes students remember the lessons they learned after they are back on the ground.

“The one thing I would like the students to walk away with is understanding how difficult aerial photography is,” Kelly said. “You need to know what equipment to use, what type of plane to use, what time of day, and how high to go, and of course, getting a good photo that you can use back at the shop.”

With the autumn colors below and an intense blue sky surrounding the plane, senior Matthew Weishan said he didn’t take much for granted during Thursday’s flight..

“It was an awesome experience,” Weishan said. “A great way to experience aerial photography.”

Tommy Ellis can be reached at

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