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Flight school fleet ravaged by 'gustnado'

Eleven airplanes were damaged or destroyed at Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport when high wind gusts from a passing storm swept through Kansas City, Missouri, in the early morning of April 20.

A storm tore through Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City, Missouri, on April 20, flipping, twisting, and grounding all but one of 11 aircraft operated by family-owned flight school ATD Flight Systems. Google Earth image.

The aircraft, which were all owned by a flight school on the field, ATD Flight Systems, were flipped, dragged, crumpled, and tangled up in fences on and around the airport by a likely "gustnado," according to the National Weather Service. Gusts up to 40 knots tossed aircraft that might otherwise have been sheltered in a hangar. 

“We've had some damage in the past here and at [Kansas City International Airport], but I've never seen in my 30 years here anything to this extent,” said Joe McBride, communications director for the Kansas City Aviation Department, to KMBC.

The school, which is owned by Bill Hays and family, usually houses its aircraft in a large hangar. However, on the morning of April 20, all of the aircraft were parked outside on a ramp owned by Signature Flight Support to make room for a fashion show fundraiser happening later that weekend to raise money for cancer patients.

“The safety and security of our customers and employees is our top priority and we followed standard operating procedures to protect the aircraft staged on the ramp,” a spokesperson from Signature Flight Support said in a statement to Flying addressing concerns that the aircraft were not tied down. “We are working closely with local authorities and the impacted customer to address the immediate situation. The incident remains under investigation.”

While the school is working as quickly as possible to restore the fleet, flight school owners have communicated that their primary concern is to take care of the school's current students, and the instructors on their staff.

“The last two days have been a blur for us, to say the least, and we're quickly trying to piece together a plan of action to overcome this tragedy,” the Hays family reported on the ATD Flight Systems Facebook page. “We are working as quickly as possible to restore our fleet, but we're calling on the community to please help support our staff while we scramble to replace our aircraft.”

The flight school has set up a GoFundMe that has already raised more than $15,000 to help cover the instructor payroll.

“Losing our fleet in the blink of an eye was a major setback,” the school's owners wrote. “Losing our instructors would be our demise.”

ATD Flight Systems has been operating out of the airport since 1996, and the owners hope to rebuild and continue to call the airport home. The flight school continues to provide limited training, and a recent milestone provided a cause for celebration in the midst of tragedy.

On April 24, despite a fleet in disarray, private pilot student Lexi Baughman was able to hop into the only operating airplane that the flight school has left—and ace her private pilot checkride, news that made for a much happier post on social media.

Lillian Geil
Communications Specialist
Communications Specialist Lillian Geil is a student pilot and a graduate of Columbia University who joined AOPA in 2021.
Topics: Weather, Flight School

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