December 22, 2009
By Sarah Brown
From his home airport in Roundup, Mont., State Sen. Kelly Gebhardt flies out over the Rocky Mountains and the plains. Shown here with his Cessna 210 and twins Derin and Donna at Plains, Mont., in 1998.
Situated to the east of the Rockies in south-central Montana, Roundup Airport can send a pilot out over rugged plains or timbered canyons. Pilots planning a journey west can stop there for some mountain flying instruction, and students at Rocky Mountain College fly in from Billings for soft-field training on the crosswind runway. And for pilots who need a hand—with training, maintenance, or advice—Montana Sen. Kelly Gebhardt is often there to help.
Gebhardt has a small, part-time maintenance shop on the field and instructs in his Cessna 150 and 172. When transient pilots come through planning to head west to Washington, he offers instruction for the challenging mountain flying that lies ahead. The airport can’t afford a full-time maintenance person, so in the springtime Gebhardt helps mow the grass. Recently, he and other volunteers replaced runway lights.
Jake Barthule, who went to school with Gebhardt, became his student for flight training, and now co-manages the airport with him, said Gebhardt is the kind of person who would give you his last twenty dollars if you needed it.
“If I had to go to war, I’d want him with me,” Barthule said.
A Cessna 120 sits in Gebhardt’s garage with the wings off, part of a restoration project he began a year ago. He got his A&P certificate two and a half years ago and later set out to restore the aircraft as a way to build up the continuous experience necessary for an inspection authorization, but it turned out he didn’t need a project of his own to keep busy: He has a waiting list of local pilots wanting maintenance on their airplanes.
“He’s very thorough,” said Doug Parrott, chair of the Roundup airport board, who is entrusting Gebhardt with his Cessna 310. “Since he’s part time, he’s not fast, but he’s very thorough.” Parrott gave Gebhardt some of his final training for his instructor rating, and Gebhardt’s thoroughness extends to his flying, he added.
That thoroughness—a dedication to see a task through—has also characterized Gebhardt’s involvement in his community. He has been a volunteer firefighter since 1978, served as Musselshell County commissioner for 12 years, and will reach his term limit as a state senator in 2010. When he took office as a state senator, he had to give up his seat on 16 boards—including the airport board, which he chaired for more than a decade and a half.
He still attends airport board meetings and volunteers for community organizations. When managing Roundup Airport became too big a task for Barthule, who often travels for his job, to handle alone, Gebhardt stepped in to help.
“He’s always willing to give a hand,” Parrott said. “Any time you need a man, he’s there.”
Roundup, a town of about 2,000, sprang up along the Milwaukee Railroad in the early 20th century as a coal-producing town. The area’s economy still relies a great deal on coal and agriculture, and aviation provides a way to travel the long distances required for doing business in the region. Several ranches in the area—Parrott estimates about five within 30 miles of Roundup—have their own grass strips.
Gebhardt with a Young Eagle flight student. In addition to running the family sawmill and holding office as a state senator, Gebhardt has a small, part-time maintenance shop at Roundup Airport and instructs in his Cessna 150 and a 172.
The second of nine children, Gebhardt grew up on a ranch in Roundup. He has worked at the family sawmill, Gebhardt Post Plant and Saw Mill, since 1975, and said he uses his Cessna 210 to reach customers.
“Distances are a long way in Montana, and it’s nice to have the convenience of being able to get there more quickly,” he said. With customers throughout the Midwest, flying is especially helpful: “It takes a long time to drive to Minneapolis and back.”
His mother was a pilot and had given military ground instruction for pilots during World War II, but Gebhardt did not begin to take lessons until he was an adult. His youngest brother was the first of his siblings to learn to fly. One time when his brother was home from college, Gebhardt needed to make a trip to Kalispell, and his brother suggested they rent an airplane instead of driving the 16 hours roundtrip. When they made the trip and returned the same day, “I thought, ‘You know, I ought to pursue flying,’” Gebhardt said.
He and another brother earned their pilot certificates, and one of his sisters is an engineer for Boeing. While he never got a chance to fly with his mother, Gebhardt said he thought she liked seeing her children fly. “I think she really liked that,” he said. “She was very proud of all her children.”
When Barthule was training in the 1990s, he had a few little things that wouldn’t fall into place. He had known Gebhardt for a long time—the two had gone to school together—and went to him for help and a different point of view.
“Right before my checkride I just didn’t feel ready, and I got together with Kelly and he straightened me out on some problems,” Barthule said. Barthule has been going to Gebhardt for instruction off and on since 1996. “He just has a way of putting things across to where you understand it,” he said.
Instructing in Montana, Gebhardt puts particular emphasis on the effects of weather. Weather can change quickly from one side of a valley to the other, he said, and he teaches students to beware of downdrafts and changing visibility in the mountains and wind on the plains.
Gebhardt gives instruction in his Cessna 150 at Roundup Airport.
As a CFI in the statehouse, he can share his technical knowledge with colleagues who may not know as much about the world of general aviation. Just last Friday, he said, he was talking with a representative in the state legislature. “We got talking about flying and the weather, and he was just shocked that you have to know so much about weather to fly safely,” he said. He also has worked on a declaration setting up a day of recognition for Charles Taylor, the Wright brothers’ mechanic, and has been involved in authorizing funding for airports throughout the state.
While Gebhardt’s term in office ends in 2010, it is unlikely his community involvement will end any time soon. He continues to be a fixture at the Roundup Airport, working on aircraft, fixing up the grounds, and giving instruction. Other airport regulars seem to like it that way: “I wouldn’t take instruction from anybody else,” Barthule said.
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