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Aviation Alum Matt Lanese Sends
American Flag Home to MCCC from Iraq


6/23/10


West Windsor, N.J. - When army helicopter pilot Matt Lanese '01 (A.A.S., Aviation Flight Technology) mailed an American flag home to Mercer County Community College from Iraq in late 2009, he was observing a new army tradition. "We place the flag on the glare shield (dashboard) of the helicopter and fly with it for the day. Then the crew members sign a certificate from the company and we send it to people we care about," Lanese explains.

As documented on the certificate, during its day in the air on November 19, 2009, Mercer's flag went many places. With Lanese at the helm, it traveled from Al Kut in eastern Iraq to Ad Diwaniyah in south central Iraq, to a military base near Baghdad, on to Baghdad proper, and then back to Ad Diwaniyah and Al Kut.

Now, back in New Jersey after his second deployment, Lanese says that sending the flag to the college was a "no brainer," Lanese said, adding that he has done it only four times, the others being for relatives and friends.

Pilot Matt Lanese, left, with MCCC President Patricia C. Donohue and Aviation Program Coordinator Joe Blasenstein at the MCCC hangar at Trenton-Mercer Airport. The flag, which will be displayed in a prominent spot on the college's West Windsor campus, accompanied Lanese and his crew on a daylong mission in Iraq.
"Mercer was a really big part of my life for four years. I still stop in when I can and always ask about staff and other alumni. There's not another program like it." Lanese looks back on his experience at Mercer as a "great time, probably the most fun I've had flying." He earned his degree in Aviation Flight Technology with honors in 2001.

These days, his mission is far more serious. Lanese's tours in Iraq included a year-long deployment from 2008-09 as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter instructor pilot and a second eight-month tour from which he returned in February.

Lanese felt the call to military service from a young age, first serving as an army infantryman and then in the National Guard.
Ultimately he decided to pursue aviation, a love affair that began in childhood. "My first time behind the controls was on a fishing trip in Canada when I was 8 years old," he recalls. "My dad put me in the front seat of a De Havilland Beaver Float plane. When we got to cruise altitude, the pilot let me fly for awhile. I pretty much loved airplanes from that point on, but I thought bad eyesight would prevent me from flying. It wasn't until after high school that I learned that was all a myth," he said.

Originally from Hillsborough, Lanese first attended Raritan Valley College, but knew that Mercer was the place to go for aviation. With tuition paid for through the National Guard, he began classes at MCCC in spring 1999 alongside fellow students equally passionate about flying. "It was a good mix of students," he recalled. "Some already had their bachelor's degrees."

Lanese is full of praise for his MCCC instructors. "All my professors were fantastic ," he says. He recalls Program Coordinator Joe Blasenstein and instructor Diane Loving as "smart and technically oriented. They kept us all under control and headed in the right direction." Also stellar were faculty members Jerry Kuhl and Joan Jones.

Lanese continued his aviation training after graduation, earning several flight certifications, including commercial pilot and flight instructor. By the age of 23, he was teaching with his former instructor, Diane Loving, at the Trenton-Mercer Airport. He considers himself fortunate to have been hired. "This was right after Sept. 11, 2001, when the industry was laying off."

According to Lanese, he gave much to his students and got much in return. "I logged approximately 1500 hours in the air. I learned a lot about flying and maintenance and the details of the way things are run." He notes he also developed management and interpersonal skills. "I really learned how to deal with people. With regard to teaching, Diane used to say, 'It's a continual lesson in practical psychology, recognizing students' barriers and what it takes for them to learn.'"

Lanese recalls never feeling anything but safe in the air. "The airplanes practically fly themselves, they are so stable. Just look at the program's unblemished safety record."

After working at Mercer, Lanese decided he was ready to apply to the Army Warrant Officer Flight Training program. "It's a very competitive program. Because of my extensive experience - as a commercial pilot and an MCCC instructor with many hours in flight - I was selected." In his army training, Lanese learned how to pilot a helicopter and graduated first in his class from the Army's Flight School in Fort Rucker, AL, in 2004.

With countless hours of preparation behind him, Lanese was deployed to Iraq in 2008 and spent a full year as a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter instructor pilot. "Each of the Army's aviation units operates like a business," he says, with instructor pilots and crew members. "We provide the oversight to make sure there are no cowboys out there and that operations are being carried out according to Army protocol."

As an air mission commander in charge of multiple aircraft, Lanese acknowledges that he had a lot of responsibility. "It's where I tested all the things I learned," he says. "We are considered the tactical and technical experts - where the rubber meets the road. The foundation for that began at MCCC. I learned the right way to do things and how to make sound judgments. I learned it flying around New Jersey."

Lanese flew many missions, mostly involving battlefield circulation, where he and his crew transported people and equipment around the country, often to and from Baghdad. He recalls his experience in Iraq as "a different world. As an aviator you see things from a distance. It can be boring at times, exciting at other times.

"I feel really privileged to be able to go over and see for myself what's happening," he continued. "It makes me a better individual having seen and experienced this. I feel lucky to be able to do it and to do it flying."

While in Iraq, Lanese was determined to continue his college studies, learning online through Thomas Edison State College. He recalls the discipline this required. "It was tough while overseas, spending days on missions and then returning to base to study at night." With a combination of credits for life experience and general education classes in management, public speaking and more, he earned his bachelor's degree in Aviation Flight Technology in 2009.

Between deployments, Lanese returned to Fort Rucker to attend a Black Hawk Maintenance Test Pilot course. After his latest homecoming in February, he began working for the New Jersey Counter-Drug Task Force. "We fly to support state and local law enforcement agencies," he explains. He also lands his helicopter at schools as part of the D.A.R.E. program. The wow factor works, he maintains. "It's high visibility and the kids love it."

Qualified as both an airplane and helicopter pilot, and as an instructor in both, Lanese is at the top of his game. "I plan to continue in the army and perhaps earn another degree," he says.


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