A college dean with a helicopter strategy

Photos by Kelly Jackson Roni Avissar, left, at helicopter controls.

Rosenstiel’s Avissar keeps his life flying

After Hurricane Irene ripped through the Bahamas in August, Kelly Jackson, a University of Miami doctoral student, was stuck with a problem. She had to get to the islands for her research project, but she had no way to get there.

One person at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, which is on Virginia Key, just off Miami’s Rickenbacker Causeway, could help her. That was Roni Avissar, the dean of the school and a veteran helicopter pilot.

“He was great,” Jackson said. “He was available right away, didn’t charge anything for piloting the helicopter and helped find additional funding for the project.”

Roni Avissar, right, before takeoff.

Flying has been a life-long passion for Avissar, who is 58. He was born and grew up in France — then moved to Israel when he was 17 and learned to fly helicopters in the Israeli military.

“I had a life before academia,” he said with a chuckle. “I was very young when I became fascinated with aviation.”

Avissar has been dean at Rosenstiel since 2009. He earned Bachelor of Arts, Master of Arts and Ph.D. degrees at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. An atmospheric scientist, he came to the United States in 1986 to work at Colorado State University. From there he moved to Rutgers and then Duke University.

In 2005, Avissar began using a Bell Jet Ranger to develop what he calls a Helicopter Observation Platform to research the interaction between the earth’s surface and the atmosphere.

Some Duke students know Avissar for something else. “I remember him bringing the helicopter to a series of picnics that happened on the engineering quad,” said Lauren Lewis, who was an engineering student at the time.

Roni Avissar and helicopter at Duke University.

One of Avissar’s priorities at Rosenstiel, he said, is to develop a similar helicopter program. He has been raising funds to buy and outfit a helicopter for the school, the kind of five-passenger aircraft that television stations and police departments around the country often use. The aircraft could cost as much as $2.7 million plus up to $500,000 for special research equipment.  Nearly every weekend Avissar flies a rented aircraft out of Bravo Helicopters at the Tamiami Airport in southwest Miami-Dade County.

Avissar also flies fixed-wing aircraft, but he said he prefers to be at the controls of a helicopter. “With a plane, you take off and you land,” he said. “But, in a helicopter, you’re always engaged.”

Avissar often takes people on flights around Miami. “I have begun teaching a couple faculty members to fly,” he said. Another of his students is a trustee on the board of the University of Miami.

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