Penn College

With flying colors: Student takes lead in repainting aircraft

Days before crossing the stage in Pennsylvania College of Technology’s combined fall 2020/spring 2021 commencement exercises in mid-May, Kate M. Ruggiero, of Easton, stands before her handiwork. Credit: Penn College / Penn StateCreative Commons

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — As if the industrious fulfillment of her proud Pennsylvania College of Technology days isn’t a sufficient bequest, Kate M. Ruggiero punctuated her academic performance with a larger-than-life mic drop: impressively taking the lead in repainting a single-engine Cessna 175C airplane donated to the Lumley Aviation Center eight years ago.

Ruggiero earned an associate degree in aviation technology from Penn College in December, crossing the stage in a COVID-delayed ceremony on May 15, and will move from Easton to Michigan in early July to start a job as an aircraft paint specialist — working on corporate and private jets for Duncan Aviation in Battle Creek.

Employment is but the latest exciting step along Ruggiero’s bustling path.

She was an award-winning campus leader and recipient of multiple industry scholarships, a Presidential Student Ambassador and a Theta Phi Alpha sorority sister. And she’s a self-described “Daddy’s girl” who gleefully tag-teamed the teardown of an airplane carburetor during an early visit to Penn College with her father.

Painting is Ruggiero’s foundational passion, but airplanes weren’t always her palette. As a student at Easton Area High School and the Career Institute of Technology, she took automotive courses — including classes in collision and refinishing technology.

“I started doing welding, sheet-metal fabrication, spray-painting and filling in dents. I wanted to just broaden my skills,” she said. “Pennsylvania College of Technology caught my eye. I actually toured there originally for the collision repair program and automotive business management.”

Paternal research would help redefine her career path, revealing that the college also has an attractive aviation program and moving a daughter’s focus from wheeled transport to the winged variety.

“Ever since I was little, my dad took me to a local airpark that's about five minutes from my house. They had fly-ins all the time, so he would take me there as a little girl, plus to different aviation museums,” Ruggiero said. “He always had a passion for aviation and really supported the industry, and he carried that down to me.”

She and father Mike visited the Lumley Aviation Center in Montoursville, where they met instructor Michael R. Robison and other faculty members, and followed up with a “shadow day” that provided a more intensive look at the campus’ instructional labs.

“I had the pleasure of meeting Kate while she was exploring college majors,” said William F. Stepp III, associate professor of aviation. “She impressed me by her depth of research and maturity.”

The day had an impact on Ruggiero, as well.

“I went into a carburetors class, and my dad was actually able to be there with me for the whole day, which was awesome. He loved it!” she said. “He always wanted to work on planes, be affiliated with them somehow, so he was like a little kid in a candy store just as much as me. Mr. Stepp (William IV, assistant professor of aviation maintenance) handed us a carburetor and some tools and said, ‘Here. Have at it. Take it apart. If you need any help, let me know.’

“Dad's a jack of all trades — cars, trucks, diesel, campers, he’s really into motorcycles. He can do it all 'cause he's a mechanic, but I'd never done anything like that before,” she said. “So that was a lot of fun, and being able to interact with the students and meet more teachers, that really encouraged me to go to Penn College.”

The summer after her first year, Ruggiero did an internship at Lancaster Aero in Smoketown, a maintenance, paint and body shop owned by Kendall N. Horst, a May 1997 graduate of the college’s aviation technology major. Horst had just hired a specialist at his Lancaster County business, so Ruggiero didn’t get the full hands-on experience.

“I got an inside look at what it’s like to paint aircraft, though,” she said. “I did some composite repairs and got to sit in the paint booth as the new guy was spraying, looking at his techniques. And I got to help lay out paint designs, too.”

The paint bug would resurface in Ruggiero’s final semester last fall, when a three-credit physics survey course was the only remaining stop on her road to that two-year degree.

“I didn’t really want to leave the Aviation Center yet — I still wanted to be involved there — and I was studying and testing for my Airframe and Powerplant certification,” she said. “So I asked if I would be able to paint one of the aircraft because I really wanted that experience beneath my belt.”

Asked … and answered.

She was readily assigned to refurbish the Cessna, donated in spring 2013 by the alumni-laden Gable family.

Ruggiero’s ability to prioritize, prepare and perform — from becoming Federal Aviation Administration-certified to finalizing the instructional aircraft’s makeover to graduating — is no surprise to her faculty mentors.

“She is a conscientious, friendly and honest person who ensures all tasks are completed correctly, on time and to the highest standards without compromising safety,” Stepp III said. “She can always be trusted to do her best and seek help or guidance if needed.”

Ruggiero and Grace M. Snyder, of Lebanon, who graduated May 15 with a bachelor’s degree in aviation maintenance technology, busily occupied themselves with the Cessna during the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters. (Snyder took some time away from the work early this year to concentrate on her senior project, then jumped back in to help with the rebuild and final prep for spraying. She is now employed by Fly Advanced, Lititz.)

“From September to December, all that Grace and I were doing was complete disassembly — bringing it down to the fuselage,” she explained about their meticulous game plan. “Typically, we don't take off the wings; we don't completely disassemble a tail. We just take off all the flight controls, and then we take off the cowling, and then the wheel pants.”

A step-by-step photo gallery of the project can be found at PCToday, the college’s news and information website.

“You generally don’t take off the major components, but we did that for the Cessna because we thought it would be a lot easier,” she added. “We could then go in there for corrosion control, really get an inside look and see if there were any major repairs that needed to be done. Fortunately, everything was in decent condition.”

The duo used a chemical stripper to more easily remove the plane’s greenish hue, jokingly characterized by classmates as “dying salmon,” Ruggiero said.

“We put that on and let it sit for a couple of hours, sometimes overnight, and that chewed up the paint and brought it into a big, gooey ball,” she recalled. “Then we just scraped it all off, and that brought it down to bare metal. Once all the paint was completely removed from the flight surfaces and the fuselage, I went in there with sandpaper and a little Jitterbug sander and got rid of all the corrosion so that there was only clean metal.”

Ruggiero also replaced all of the hardware, a nod to the thoroughness of the enterprise, and realigned inspection panels and other pieces for a professional, uniform look.

She and Snyder searched online for “blue Cessna paint design” and readily selected one of the first results that were displayed. They modified the look slightly, and opted for a Wildcat-friendly mix of blue, gray and white paint. The result, it goes without saying, is magnificent — but visitors to the Lumley Aviation Center are saying it anyway.

“We came to recruit aviation technicians for New World Aviation because the curriculum and the technology at Penn College help support our workforce by giving students and graduates the skills they need to be leaders in our industry,” said Darrell Frey, president of New World Aviation in Allentown, a Penn College Corporate Tomorrow Maker. “Seeing what was happening with the Cessna was a pleasant surprise and truly demonstrates, not only the level of talent and skill of Ms. Ruggiero and her team, but their passion for the industry and the craft.”

Frey was equally impressed that the college attracts such enthusiastic young people into its program, producing a high-quality outcome that bodes well for aviation’s future.

“I remember meeting Kate and Grace side-by-side in the paint booth with big smiles,” he said. “You could tell they loved the opportunity to learn the paint process.”

When Ruggiero was selected in December to receive the President’s Award for leadership and service to her alma mater, her nominator all but predicted her lasting influence.

“Despite being a student from a satellite campus and an off-campus resident, she has immersed herself into the campus community by being engaged in leadership and social opportunities,” the Admissions Office employee wrote. “Her continued desire to give back to the campus and serve her peers through her involvement is inspiring.”

Ruggiero matches that effusive praise with pure humility, making sure to credit the nearly 30 students who lent a hand — a just-doing-my-job attitude that will serve her new employer well: “I’m just really glad that I could leave a little bit of a legacy.”

For more information about Penn College’s aviation majors, visit or call the School of Engineering Technologies at 570-327-4520.

For more about the college, a national leader in applied technology education, visit, email or call toll-free 800-367-9222.

Last Updated July 13, 2021