It's the best of both worlds. That's what Colonel Fred Dohnke said about his position as the new commandant for the Porterville Military Academy, a Porterville Unified School District Pathway Academy, and one of only 14 such programs in the state.
Dohnky is a 1994 Porterville High School, and a 2000 Fresno State graduate with a bachelor’s, who was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. He started pilot training in the summer of 2001 and graduated a year later.
“Ten deployments and 82 TDY trips for 1,686 days, one 366-day remote for a total of 5.6 years away from home,” Dohnke said. “763 total missions flown, of those 146 being combat support and 75 combat. I had the privilege of spending 3,219 hours in the air, over six of the seven continents, and to fly around the world in both east and westbound directions.”
Outside of flight training, Dohnke attended Aerospace Basic Course for lieutenants, Squadron Officer School as a captain, and as a major, completed Air Command and Staff College. He also earned his master’s in Aerospace Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He's a graduate of the USAF’s Advanced Instrument School, Combat Aircrew Tactics Studies, Mobility Electronic Combat Officer Course and was a Crew Resource Management instructor while being enrolled in Air War College.
Then one year ago, Dohnke was invited by Porterville’s Steve Graybehl to join the advisory board of the PMA. He went through a commandant course in June and recently came onboard with Porterville Unified School District on December 1.
“It’s an amazing job,” he said. “I feel as if I have the best of both worlds — civilian and military. It’s fun stuff. This is the kind of stuff my peers can’t believe — to find a position like this in my home town, in a situation like this. It’s unique.”
Dohnke said he has a lot to live up to and internally tends to see himself ‘more as a kid’ than a commandant in class, but does maintain a professional image.
He had heard of the flight simulators the academy has before his visit to PMA, he said, but was still blown away when he saw the room filled with the simulators, complete with yokes, pedals and controls for flying.
“I had already heard that they had this, but to walk in and actually see it — wow,” he said. “We don’t have to get out to the airport to tell kids about this. They have an early foundation for aviation. Now they can practice in an airplane. They don’t have to be introduced to it and see it for the first time at the airport. They are getting so much ground work to aviation. “Students will be well prepared and will be learning to operate in an environment restrictive by rules and standards.”
And by the time they get to an airplane at the airport for training, they're ahead of the game and can start actually flying, he said.
PMA Principal Doug Ihmels said they're absolutely thrilled to have Dohnke onboard.
“It was a long process and a lot had to happen but we are absolutely thrilled that he’s here. He has already made a tremendous impact in the short time he has been here. We are looking forward to him elevating our program to an even higher level.”
That includes building PMA’s aviation pathway program, Ihmels said.
“We have an elite Air Force pilot who is going to help the kids through the pathway,” Ihmels said. “It sets an incredible opportunity for the youth of Porterville. I don’t think people understand what we have here — to have that expertise and passion, and (Dohnke) having fun doing what we need to have done. It is going to be unique and will take some time to see the impact.”
Ihmels also talked about the Porterville Airport, which isn't utilized enough, he said.
“What a unique set of opportunities and what a great place to learn to fly,” Ihmels said.
He was referring to the starting of a flying club in Porterville, which Dohnke is instrumental in starting.
“It’s an opportunity to give students a place to go and be exposed to aviation,” Dohnke said. He talked about the partnership with the AOPA — Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association’s High School Curriculum
“(Dohnke) put everything in hyper-speed,” Ihmels said. “He’s connecting things so fast. Now we need to make sure kids know this opportunity is available. This is an opportunity here not available elsewhere. No place in the U.S. has this — and it’s right here in Porterville.
And Ihmels was not the only one thankful for Dohnke.
“Having him as the second commandment, it’s an honor for the students and all of us to be mentored by him,” said Sgt. 1st Class Hector Medellin. “That’s the exciting part for me. When I move on, I will take the lessons he taught me and apply them for another younger officer. And though he’s retiring and no longer a service member, he has shown great commitment to our cadets, servicemen and servicewomen.”
Cynthia Brown, PUSD Pathways Director, echoed the sentiments.
“Colonel Dohnke is amazing,” Brown said. “The fact that he’s coming back to give back to the community he was raised in, is phenomenal.”
DOHNKE'S EARLY YEARS
Born in Brazil, Dohnke grew up speaking Portuguese until his family moved to Porterville when he was 9 years old. With only some basic English understanding, the school provided a Spanish translator, and it took some adjusting but eventually Dohnke learned English and Spanish.
As a child, Dohnke believed becoming a pilot would be difficult. Civilian training was expensive and acceptance into a military service academy was for valedictorians and required a recommendation from a senator or congressman.
But with the help of local educational opportunities, Dohnke’s dream turned into an almost 22 year career.
During his freshman year, Dohnke traveled to Monache High to take an aviation class from local pilot Travis Bierman.
The class ended with the opportunity to take the Federal Aviation Administration written exam to obtain a private pilot’s student permit to learn to fly. Dohnke also credits his junior varsity football head coach, Graybehl, for positively influencing his life.
After earning his associate’s from Porterville College, he transitioned to Fresno State where he joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Detachment 35 — a program dedicated to producing officers for the Air Force and better citizens for the country. And after taking the ROTC Officer Qualification Test, his time spent in Bierman’s aviation class gave him an advantage and it showed on the test.
Dohnke’s score caught the attention of the detachment commander, which allowed him to compete for, and earn, a pilot training slot.
During his senior year at Fresno State, the Air Force paid for Dohnke to complete his private pilot’s certificate at the Fresno airport in preparation for military flight training. Today he's an FAA certified flight instructor and commercial pilot with numerous commercial aircraft type ratings. He graduated from Fresno State with a bachelor’s and commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the USAF.
After pilot training, Dohnke flew the KC-10 during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and in Operation Southern Watch in Iraq.
Dohnke married Anna Loscotoff in 2002. The couple have a daughter, Isabella,16, and established their home in Tehachapi.