The Lovable Latvian, Janis Strupis is making waves in the WMU Aviation Technical Operations Program

WMU Aviation Technical Operations Student Janis Strupis
Posted by Tom Thinnes on

Janis Strupis in the engine lab at Western Michigan University's College of Aviation

Growing up in Latvia, Janis Strupis easily made his way through water as a competitive swimmer. 

Janis experiencing a flight simulator, fueled by his experience with airBaltic, which "turbocharged" his love for aviation

Now, as a major in aviation technical operations at the Western Michigan University College of Aviation, he's intent of acquiring the same ease of mobility through the air, either as a technician that keeps planes in the sky or as a person behind the controls. 

Janis attended high school and university in Riga, the eastern European nation's capital city with a population of around 600,000, growing up in Ragaciems, a small fishing village where he gained most of his mechanical aptitude and skills.  For the geographically challenged, Latvia is south of Estonia and north of Lithuania.  It touches the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea directly across from Sweden and has a border with Russia and is now considered part of Northern Europe.

His version of high school was the Grammar School of Nordic Languages in Riga where, among other things, he became "conversational" in Norwegian before his 2020 graduation.  "I am the first in my family to be involved in aviation," he says  "I was the first to take a flight."   That sightseeing trip was aboard an Ukrainian-made two-seater that offered up-there views of tourist attractions.  He was impressed. 

While his high school offered no paths to aviation, Janis forged his own, voraciously reading news about the industry and playing video games, such as Microsoft Flight Simulator.  The simulator is where "my love for aviation was turbo-charged," he recalls.  "Before that, I didn't even think about a job in aviation.  Something clicked."  

He went to movies with aviation themes and plots, and attended air shows.  A research project focused on how plane noise impacts airport workers.  Enrolled in Riga Technical University,  the oldest of its kind in Latvia, Janis studied aviation engineering. 

"I talked my way into the training center for airBaltic (the government-run, Riga-based airline in Latvia) after a day of doing noise research at the airport," he says.  "Chatting with a Boeing 737 instructor, the next thing I know I'm in the cockpit while there was training under way for a bomb-on-board situation.  I was really surprised how realistic that was." 


Janis preparing for a sightseeing flight in a Ukrainian made Aeroprakt A32

But all of that only whetted his appetite for all things aviation.  Accepted into a program in The Netherlands, that phase in his life was destined to never happen. "My life rapidly changed when I acquired my Green Card that same year," he says,  which directed his career path toward the United States and WMU.  A federal "Green Card" identifies its holder as having the status of "permanent residence" in the U.S.  Some 14 million people currently have green cards and, generally, three-quarters become American citizens. 

Janis mirrored what many in his homeland decided decades ago.  As the Cold War flared, many Latvians chose to leave their country for a more-free way of life than what they believed the Soviet Union offered.  Kalamazoo became a destination for some of them in the late 1940s and 1950s.  Sure, Western offered a great program, but Janis also had relatives in Michigan.  It was the perfect fit. 

As a former competitive swimmer for 12 years, Janis competed in the United World Games, and was the only Latvian participant. He placed 4th in the 50 meter freestyle

While right now he is focused on the mechanical aspects of the industry, he is open-minded.  "I am interested in becoming a pilot as well," he says.  "Mechanical knowledge will make me a better pilot and being a pilot will make me a better aircraft mechanic."  What kind of pilot?  Maybe even a test pilot, he says. 

Now only a recreational swimmer, Janis churned through competitive waters for a dozen years, focusing on the 50-meter freestyle.  He was the only Latvian to swim when the United World Games were held in Austria and finished fourth in his event.   

Janis preparing the stage for an Imagine Dragons concert (above) and an Iron Maiden concert (below), working as a sound engineer and stage technician

He has taken electricity classes at Riga Technical, which transferred into WMU's aviation technical operations program, to complement his technical training.  "My Dad taught me some of the basics," he says, "and I fiddled with shiny LED (energy-efficient Light-Emitting Diodes) lights and wiring.  I've gotten a lot better at it.  It's become an interesting pastime." 

That knowledge and skills come into play in another of his pastimes -- working as a sound engineer and stage technicians at rock concerts.  For back-to-back events, he was part of the backstage crews for Iron Maiden and Imagine Dragons.  The latter is a Las Vegas group that synthesized "arena rock" with EDM (electronic dance music) produced with digital computers.  Entering the mainstream in the 2010s, "arena" is a style of rock music designed for performing in front of large audiences. 

"This links to my love for all things electrical," he says, "since I also fiddle with audio equipment.  Being back stage is a great way to enjoy concerts and have the best views.  I'd like to continue these gigs if I can." 

Closer to what he hopes will be his professional career, Janis has enjoyed the maintenance-practice class taught by Brian Jansen.  "It was my first hands-on experience with actual aircraft.  Once a week, I got to feel like an aviation-maintenance professional.  He is a really great instructor, who can also talk about out-of-class activities like cars and music." 

Janis participating on the MBAA Workforce Development Panel

Other aspects of  "The Western Way" have impressed the Latvian.  "When I studied in Europe," he says, "I never even had a thought about what studies in the U. S. would look like.  I had dreamed about it, but never really envisioned it this way.  I am impressed with what WMU has to offer.  It is totally different and I love it.  Never did I envision a university owning a big Boeing jet or having so many aircraft to fly and work on." 

He's dined with Andy Richards, the executive vice president and chief operations officer at Duncan Aviation's Battle Creek facility who succeeded a 40-year veteran of the enterprise in that role.  He's networked with potential future employers at events staged by the National Business Aviation Association and participated on a college/university panel at the Michigan Business Aviation Association workforce development conference on March 17th, 2023. 

Janis with the SkyWest Tech Ops representatives during their AMT Pathway launch at WMU

Recently, the College of Aviation announced the latest of now four career-pathway partnerships with airlines --this one with SkyWest, which is headquartered in Utah and flies a fleet of 500 aircraft taking passengers to 240 North American destinations.  SkyWest is offering one for pilots and one for aviation maintenance technicians.  Janis has his eyes on the latter, which includes mentorships with experienced professionals, the prospects of up to $4,500 in financial assistance to work toward a degree, and a guaranteed interview to become part of the SkyWest team. 

"Professionalism runs in me," Janis says.  "When I attend aviation meetings, I don't only think about what the benefit would be for me personally.  I think about my appearance and professionalism because I don't just represent myself.  I represent the university.  I am proud to do that." 

And Western is proud of that kind of student.