THIEF RIVER FALLS, MINN. - Four years ago, the large hangar filled with retired airplanes and helicopters just outside this town was a lonely place. As airlines consolidated and the Great Recession ate away at the labor market, Northland Community and Technical College's nationally recognized program for aviation mechanics had dwindled to nine students, and was suspended after a 48-year run.

The school pondered whether to abandon aviation altogether, but realized that a large number of mechanics would be retiring in the near future and that demand for the education would pick up eventually. It turned to the private sector, and several companies floated the college enough operating money to survive. Today, the program has 70 students.

But administrators see the future in a sleek white aircraft nestled among the small planes and large carriers in the hangar: a model of an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), what most people think of as the "drones" that track terrorists in Afghanistan.

The school won a $5 million federal revitalization grant in 2009, and then another $4.8 million grant from the Department of Labor this summer to kick-start a program teaching students to repair a UAS and another to teach them to analyze the large amount of data being collected.

The first grant built an addition that features a classroom where computer monitors pop out of desks and large wall screens can connect "virtual" online students around the country. The first UAS class -- four students who had already completed traditional aviation mechanics -- began this semester. Scott Fletcher, director of aviation, thinks that the sky, literally, is the limit.

"We've been here from the beginning to the end, and now we are looking at the future," said Fletcher, who has a background in aviation maintenance and came to the school two years ago. He learned about the market potential and raced to get Northland involved.

At a time in which rural communities have often been hit hardest and small cities and towns have watched their residents drain away, this small story of government and business partnership is one bit of hope in a place that has escaped the brunt of the economic collapse.

While most towns are facing the problems associated with decline, the biggest challenges for the mayor of Thief River Falls are driven by success: annexation of land, new roads, and a shortage of housing for workers at the major employers, Digi-Key and Arctic Cat. Though wedged into a windswept corner of the state and surrounded by miles of prairie, traffic swells through town at "rush hours."

"We have 8,500 people and 8,000 jobs," said Mayor Steve Nordhagen. "We have a pretty good story to tell."

Nordhagen is a jovial optimist who explains away his tattered sweatshirt by offering that he also runs the town's garbage collection. Amid worries that government investment can sometimes end up in debacles such the Solyndra scandal, he says "this aviation thing is the most exciting thing that's happened since I've been mayor."

Reports from a variety of analysts agree. In 2011, UAS sales reached $7 billion. Estimates for 2020 range from about $62 billion to $94 billion. The potential certainly gets the attention of politicians, and many have visited the school this year because at the end of the day "jobs" is the magic word.

Much of that depends on Congress, which will vote in January whether to open airspace above several regions of the country for limited commercial use of drones. Fletcher said the potential for the UAS is endless, including law enforcement, firefighting, agriculture and natural disasters. Japan is already using them for crop spraying. Government agencies and businesses across the spectrum are looking at ways to use them. A UAS mechanic's starting salary is about $63,000 now and expected to escalate.

"It's going to happen; it's just a question of when," said Fletcher. "And there is already a deficiency in this career field out there."

Fletcher said people in aviation have also said there is a lack of people on the ground trained to interpret photos captured by UAS. Northland is planning a two-year course in analysis, a small step toward filling that void. "They say they are drowning in data," he said.

Northland has always piggybacked off its proximity to the renowned aerospace programs at the University of North Dakota. The region, with its vast open spaces, would be a natural fit. "Once the airspace issue is resolved, that's when the public side of this really heats up," said Fletcher.

Tyler Beckman completed traditional airline mechanics training and is now one of the first students to take advantage of the grant's tuition waiver that makes his UAS training almost free. "I went to a conference in June and saw that [the new market] is immense," he said.

Though Beckman is just in his first semester of UAS training, a major manufacturer is already looking at him as a potential future hire.

That's what excites James Retka, dean of workforce and Economic Development at Northland.

"I've been in academia a long time, and it's not often industry comes to you," he said. • 612-673-1702