Family's legacy: Training, education center opens in Kansas

September 11, 2012

The Spencer Flight and Education Center will open its doors Sept. 14 at Scott City Municipal Airport in Scott City, Kan. The nonprofit organization is named for a beloved family, and its creation was in response to a tragic aircraft accident that took their lives in 2011.

On April 22, 2011, Dylan Spencer was flying his BE 58 Baron to Topeka, Kan., to visit his wife’s family for the Easter weekend. On board were his wife, Amy Spencer, and their children, Chase and Ansley. According to a preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Baron struck terrain while executing a missed approach at Topeka. All on board were killed.

“It was a tremendous heartbreak for everyone who knew them,” said Andrew Hineman, a farmer and close friend of the Spencers. “It was also a reminder of the risks that come along with flying.”

In a town of 4,000 where everybody knows everybody, the Spencers were familiar faces and “very popular.” Dylan was an enthusiastic pilot who got Hineman involved in flying. He took Hineman for rides and gave him flight training textbooks. After Hineman got his private pilot certificate, they partnered on the purchase of a Mooney and eventually moved up to a Bonanza. Dylan was a fairly recent instrument pilot at the time of the accident, Hineman said.

In the aftermath, Scott City’s pilots joined the rest of the community in grieving for the Spencers. Out of that grief was born an idea to honor their memory.

“Initially it began with a group of us pilots feeling sorry for ourselves, mourning the loss of Dylan, and one of the pilots—Brian Vulgamore—said [Dylan] would be very frustrated and angry with us if he knew this accident stopped us from flying,” Hineman said.

They began brainstorming ways in which they could improve the availability of safety training at the airport. Scott County claims the highest number of pilots per capita in the state. The pilot-instructor ratio for the five-county radius around Scott County is nearly 11 to 1, as compared with approximately 5 to 1 in Eastern Kansas, according to the Spencer Flight Center website. “Most of the flight instructors are also A&Ps and airport managers and have about 15 other things to do,” Hineman said.

“The first idea was, ‘Let’s get a simulator that we can all hone our skills on,’” Hineman said. ”… It grew from there to a flight and education center with space for educational programs and seminars.” The community got behind the project, and with the help of a tax credit from the Kansas Department of Commerce, they were able to raise funds to construct a building at the airport. What’s more, an airport improvement grant from the state’s Department of Transportation provided funding for a Redbird simulator, Hineman said. Construction was completed in the spring. Vulgamore now serves as chairman of the center’s board of directors, and Hineman is vice chairman.

The center will be used for formal ground school classes, aviation and science-based day camps for youth, and “Pinch Hitter”-style courses for nonpilots. Additional courses and programs will be developed in conjunction with local organizations such as the Scott County school system and the Garden City Community College aviation department.

Even before the official opening, “We’ve been quietly demoing the center and its capability to a few folks and pilots,” Hineman said. Two grade school classes came to the airport, and everybody got a turn on the simulator. “That was really neat, and that’s one of the ideal situations we envision for the center to facilitate in the future,” he said.

The pilots have been test-flying the Redbird, and all agree it’s a much-needed safety tool, Hineman said. “That allows us to stay proficient and practice in a very safe environment and even practice things you couldn’t normally,” he said. “The capabilities are unbelievable. It’s very true to life.” He said he and Vulgamore practice-flew an instrument approach into Kansas City the night before the actual flight. “The next day it was almost exactly the same conditions to the same approach,” he said. “The comfort level was so much higher because we’d done [the approach] the night before. It was wonderful. That’s what we’re hoping that area pilots will recognize and put to use for themselves.”

The Spencer Flight and Education Center’s grand opening will be at 3 p.m. Sept. 14. An open house will be from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sept. 15. The events are in conjunction with the Showdown on the Plains BBQ Challenge and Airshow, also to be at the airport.