Exclusive: ISU acquired $5 million plane for athletics

Photo of the Cessna 560XL recently purchased for ISU’s Athletics Department, cropped from an online listing of the plane for sale

Iowa State University recently acquired a Cessna 560XL airplane for $5.06 million, university staff confirmed to Bleeding Heartland on February 7. The 2004 model Cessna arrived in Ames last month and is intended to replace the university’s King Air 350.

ISU communications staffer Angie Hunt said via email, “the Cessna plane was purchased for the athletic department’s primary use,” with the ISU Foundation using the athletic’s department’s “cash reserves” for the transaction. She added, “No general funds or tuition dollars were used.”

Staff in the Athletics Department have already used the Cessna for several trips.


ISU did not announce the purchase or its plans to upgrade the university’s aircraft. Bleeding Heartland inquired about the Cessna after seeing the plane on the Federal Aviation Administration’s registry for Story County, under the name “Iowa State University of Science and Technology,” with a certificate dated January 24, 2024.

According to the FlightAware website, the plane flew from Tobias Bolanos International airport in Costa Rica to Miami, Florida, and on to the Quad Cities airport in early November. It arrived at the Ames Municipal airport on January 16, traveled to Salt Lake City and Las Vegas on January 17, to the Dallas, Texas area on January 18, and back to Des Moines later the same day.

During the last week of January, the Cessna recorded trips to Trenton, New Jersey and Dane County, Wisconsin, as well as stops at the Waterloo and Fort Dodge regional airports.

The university’s procurement policy states that equipment costing more than $2 million “will be submitted” to the chief operating officer of the Iowa Board of Regents for approval, “and at the discretion of the COO may be submitted to the full Board for approval.”

Josh Lehman, communications director for the Board of Regents, confirmed via email that the board did not discuss the Cessna purchase at any of its meetings: “this was handled by the ISU foundation and doesn’t require board approval.”

Hunt told me, “While this did not require Board of Regents approval, the university advised board leadership of plans to purchase the plane.”

The 2014 purchase of ISU’s King Air was handled the same way, with the ISU Foundation using “discretionary funds” designated for the Athletics Department, and no formal approval by the Iowa Board of Regents.


ISU has operated a Flight Service for decades. The university’s airplanes came under intense scrutiny in 2016 after the Associated Press revealed then-President Steven Leath caused “substantial damage” while piloting the university’s Cirrus single-engine plane. Further reporting by the AP’s Ryan Foley uncovered personal trips by Leath in the Cirrus and ISU’s larger King Air.

The Board of Regents commissioned an internal audit of the university’s aircraft, but never fully explored the scope of Leath’s questionable use of the King Air. Then State Auditor Mary Mosiman also declined to conduct a thorough investigation.

After Leath left ISU for Auburn University in the spring of 2017, the university unloaded the Cirrus but kept the King Air. It transferred the Flight Service to the Athletics Department in 2018, Vanessa Miller reported for the Cedar Rapids Gazette the following year. Hunt confirmed this week that the athletics department has been covering the operating costs for the King Air and will do so for the Cessna.

Why purchase a new plane? Hunt told Bleeding Heartland, “The King Air needed mechanical updates and with the expansion of the Big 12 conference increasing travel for athletics, it made financial sense to purchase the Cessna.”

Neither plane is large enough to carry a whole team to a competition; their capacity is eight to ten people. Hunt clarified that the King Air “averages around 300 hours of flight time annually and is used primarily by coaches for recruiting trips.”

After reviewing records from 2017 and 2018, the Gazette’s Miller reported that coaches for the men’s teams used the plane more than the women’s teams. The most frequent users were Athletic Director Jamie Pollard, football coach Matt Campbell, wrestling coach Kevin Dresser and then men’s basketball coach Steve Prohm. ISU’s top communications staffer at the time told Miller, “Use of the university airplane is critically essential to Coach Campbell and his football staff for recruiting purposes.”


The Federal Aviation Administration’s database currently shows both the King Air and the Cessna registered to ISU. Initially, Hunt said, “The King Air will be sold. Based on the appraised value and cost of mechanical updates for the King Air, the net cost for the Cessna will be approximately $750,000.”

In response to follow-up questions, she clarified, “The purchase price for the Cessna was $5.06 million. The King Air is appraised at $3.32 million. The cost of the required maintenance for the King Air, around $1 million, was invested in the purchase of the Cessna.”

That may be an optimistic valuation for the King Air, a 2002 model.

According to information ISU released during the controversy over Leath’s airplane use, the ISU Foundation spent $2.875 million to buy the King Air in February 2014. The foundation paid another $595,568 for “avionics upgrades, inspections, safety improvements, maintenance, refurbishment, branding and paint totaling.” That’s a total investment of about $3.47 million.

Ten years later, ISU asserts that the King Air needs “around $1 million” in maintenance, yet estimates the plane can be sold for $3.32 million. Bleeding Heartland will follow up in the coming months to see how much the university receives for selling the plane.

Asked about the operating costs for the Cessna and King Air per flight hour, Hunt replied, “The costs of operating the plane are part of the athletics department budget. The total annual operating cost will be approximately the same.”

The King Air is a turbo-prop airplane, while the Cessna has turbo-fan engines. Pramod Prabhakaran, a Boeing employee and technical writer, explained the differences between those types of engines in a September 2023 post on LinkedIn. He noted, “Turboprop engines are highly efficient at lower speeds and altitudes, making them well-suited for short to medium-haul flights.” He also said turbo-props “generally have lower operating costs compared to jet engines for shorter routes.”

In contrast, Prabhakaran wrote, “Turbofans are designed for high-speed, high-altitude flight, making them suitable for long-haul commercial flights.”

Later this year, it should be possible to compare operating costs for ISU’s Cessna to what the athletics department has been spending to use the King Air.

UPDATE: Speaking to members of the Iowa House Education Appropriations Subcommittee on February 12, ISU President Wendy Wintersteen began her prepared remarks by explaining why the university recently bought the Cessna. She said the King Air required costly repairs, including a new engine, making it more economical to purchase another plane. She emphasized that taxpayer funds were not used for the Cessna, which will be available to other university officials but will mainly be used by athletics staff.

Wintersteen did not mention the price tag for the Cessna but told the legislators that ISU expects the net cost to be about $750,000, taking into account the sale of the King Air.

(I would guess that needing a new engine would affect the King Air’s sale price and will follow up in the coming weeks.)

Final note: During the airplane scandal, ISU repeatedly described the university’s larger plane as a King Air 350. However, the purchase agreement from 2014 and current FAA Registry both identify the plane as a King Air B300. It appears to be a distinction without a difference, as the B300 was typically marketed as the King Air 350.

About the Author(s)

Laura Belin

  • Coach Campbell has a new toy

    Discretionary funds are indeed discretionary, they can be spent without asking for permission. And Campbell is apparently a solid coach, currently successful.

    Another story is why a former University President was able to avoid legal proceedings after being trained to fly by a university employee, using the airplane for private trips with his drinking buddies, crashing the airplane and paying for the repair only after being caught. The man got a slap on the wrist, and even moved on to become President of another large university. Every time I hear about white man privilege, the story of this man comes to mind.

  • But cry poverty...

    When cutting baseball, swimming, etc etc…

  • Boy Toys

    While other sports are being cut entirely from ISU…i.e. baseball, the Foundation sees fit to buy a Boy Toy…and until I see other female coaches using it..it is a Boy Toy. Another reason not to give $$ to the ISU Foundation.

  • Thank you for this post, Laura Belin

    Besides being interesting, it’s a good reminder that if the ISU Foundation ever sends me another begging letter, I want to make certain that my name is permanently removed from their mailing list.

  • do we have some sense

    of how this would compare to the costs of commercial travel?

  • Quid pro quo

    Karl that was a straight up deal with KR…no trouble = ISU degree

  • KR

    Michael, I am not sure what is KR. From the links in Bellin’s piece above you will see that she tried in multiple way to encourage the State to get to the bottom of the Leath airplane story, despite resistance from the university and the State Auditor.

  • What does "KR" mean, please?

    I always try to figure out what initials mean, but in this case, I could find nothing in this story to tell me.

  • I believe KR = Kim Reynolds

    who received a degree from ISU shortly before ascending from lieutenant governor to governor.

  • reply to Dirk

    I do not know enough about every trip to know how this would compare to commercial travel.

    Ann Rhodes, who worked at the University of Iowa for many years (some of them in the general counsel’s office), commented on Facebook, “You can pay for a lot of commercial flights for the cost of an airplane, including gas, maintenance, and insurance. It’s for convenience of the men’s coaches and isn’t cost effective.”

    I believe that if it were cost effective, most major universities would own their own airplanes and employ pilots. Most don’t.

  • thanks Laura

    I figured but wasn’t sure in terms of how many trips and the lifespan of a plane.
    The real issue I think is that these big tv sports programs shouldn’t be part of universities they exploit student labor and distort the political-economies and ethics of colleges. It’s nonsense to say there wouldn’t be other sports at universities without them they would just be more modest like they were before all the tv money and would likely serve more Iowa residents instead of importing people to play them.

  • The rich get richer and the poor stay that way

    This is an outcome of societal values. The highest paid state employees are sports coaches because more people are concerned about football team success than how much students are learning in school.

    ISU football wouldn’t exist without the university, but the educational mission of the university would go on just fine without football. It is hard for this ISU employee to accept that so many of our academic buildings and classrooms are in a state of physical decay, and that instructors teaching most of the classes are on low rung of the pay scale. Football facilities, however, move ever closer to NFL grade.

  • Reply to Laura Belin

    Thank you for identifying “KR.” I shared this post and comments with an ISU friend who said he was skeptical about the KR-degree assertion but that he greatly enjoyed reading it. (He remembers Leath.)