Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Last year Chris Johnson, owner of Nature’s Choice Landscaping in Brownsburg, took ownership of Hendricks County Aviation, a flight school on the edge of Avon that opened in 2005. Hendricks County Aviation may be the area’s best kept secret. Not that it’s meant to be, but given that it’s somewhat concealed from public view (the runway ends just south of Rockville Road but is hidden by trees and railroad tracks), not everyone knows it exists.
Johnson has been involved in aviation most of his life, having moved in 1998 from the West coast to Avon for a job with United Airlines. Furloughed in 2002, he started Nature’s Choice Landscaping. When the opportunity to purchase the flight school came about last year, Johnson jumped on it, got some aviation interior materials, and immediately started renovation.
“I’d been wanting to become involved in aviation again,” says Johnson, a licensed Airframe and Powerplant mechanic. “This was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Johnson employs two primary instructors — Richard Stevens and Dave Remondini. Stevens, 70, has been a flight instructor for the past 32 years, teaching hundreds of students and logging 14,000 in-flight hours. Stevens grew up on a farm in Crawfordsville and at age 10 got hooked on aviation when he accompanied his father on an airplane ride.
Stevens earned a degree in agricultural science from Purdue University in 1974, then returned to the family farm where he worked with his two brothers. Though he enjoyed his livelihood, he still had a burning desire to learn to fly, so he started taking lessons in 1978. Though he had no intention of becoming an instructor, the GI Bill enabled him to obtain his commercial pilot’s license. In 1985, he began teaching and never stopped. He taught for 19 years in Crawfordsville before he was asked to share his skills at Hendricks County Aviation in 2005.
“I had retired from farming, so it was perfect timing for me to come over here,” says Stevens, who had envisioned this being a semi-retirement gig. Not so. During warm weather months, Stevens sometimes has as many as 15 students at one time.
The majority of the pupils who attend the Hendricks County Aviation are looking to earn their private pilot’s license so that they may pursue flying as a hobby. A handful, however, go on to earn advanced ratings or certificates so that they may become a commercial pilot.
Getting licensed is a three-step process. The first phase is 15 hours of flight training and includes three takeoffs and three landings. The second, called the “cross-country” phase, is learning how to go from Point A to Point B and involves flying from home base (the Hendricks County Airport) to a straight-line distance at least 50 nautical miles away.
“The student and I plan that flight and fly it together,” Stevens says. “We do that three times and by the third time, they’ll know how to plan it, fly it and work with air traffic control all by themselves.”
They also engage in some night training. The third and final phase is taking the Check Ride exam with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Pupils must log a minimum of 40 hours to get their private pilot’s license. The amount of time that takes is completely dependent on the student’s schedule.
“I’ve had people take as long as five years and others get it in a month if they’re out here every day,” says Stevens, whose favorite part of the job is when his students complete their first solo flight.
“When I get out of the airplane and they take off for the first time without me in the seat next to them, that’s a big deal,” Stevens says. “Their knees might be knocking a bit, but it’s not anxiety. It’s excitement. This is what they’ve been waiting for.”
Those who are intrigued by the prospect of taking lessons but are not convinced it’s for them may come out to the airport and, for a fee, participate in a “Discovery Flight” where they spend an hour with the instructor and are even allowed to take control of the aircraft.
“I’m not trying to sell aviation,” Stevens says. “You find that you either want to fly or you don’t. For anyone still on the fence, I encourage you to take the first couple of flight lessons and then decide whether or not to proceed.”
As for Stevens, he has no plans of retiring any time soon.
“There aren’t many senior flight instructors in the country, so I’m proud to be one of them,” says Stevens, who occasionally flies somewhere for a day trip. Not only is the view from the sky better than on the ground, but simply getting from one location to another is much faster by air.
“I can be to French Lick in 40 minutes by plane, whereas it takes a couple hours in a car,” Stevens says. “I can go, spend the day, and be home in time for dinner.”
Stevens’ teaching has spanned the demographics. He’s taught teenagers, adults and seniors.
“The high school students often come because they’re going to go to Purdue or Indiana State to pursue professional pilot training programs, and they want to get their private pilot’s license before arriving on campus,” Stevens says. “With the older folks, it’s often a bucket list sort of thing. I just think it’s nice anytime the flying bug has bitten someone, and they’re compelled to get their license.”
Seven years ago, a local high school student named Brady Burke, who studied under Stevens, went on to Purdue University and landed a job as a commercial airline pilot.
“Brady dreamed of becoming an airline pilot and saw his vision to fruition,” Stevens says. “It’s rewarding to know that the dream started here.”