Friday, February 08, 2013

Belgrade, Montana: Summit Aviation tapped among top flight schools

Hannah Stiff 
 Planes are lined up on the tarmac outside of Summit Aviation Wednesday. The business was named among the top flight schools in the nation.

Brothers Kyle and Ryan Fenn live together, own a dog named Huckleberry together and work together. Though they have side-by-side cubicles, the brothers both love the time they spend in the sky. 

As flight instructors at the Summit Aviation School, the brothers Fenn teach new students what they learned growing up, how to maneuver a tiny plane through the endless sky.

“For us, it was always just a thing dad did when we were growing up,” Ryan said. “He’d be gone for a few days. Then he’d come back and we would take flights together.”

Ryan and Kyle have a 15-year-old brother who wants to be a pilot, also. The boys’ only sister is a flight attendant. The Fenn’s commitment to flying is one mirrored by the rest of the staff at Summit Aviation.

That dedication is paying off, too. The local flight school was just named of the top five flight schools in the nation by the Aircraft Owner’s and Pilot’s Association. The award was created this year to celebrate schools that practice “best flight training practices.”

To receive a pilot’s license, Summit students must complete 35 hours of flight time coupled with textbook instruction and written tests. Walton said most Summit students from the area do the classroom portion at the Gallatin College. The college offers students the opportunity to earn an associates degree in aviation.

After classroom lessons, Gallatin College students drive to Belgrade to put in flight time with Summit instructors.

People who aren’t enrolled at Gallatin College are welcomed to complete all aspects of earning a pilot’s license at Summit.

“If you just want to come in off the street, we can do ground instruction and flight instruction,” Ryan said.

Last year, Summit Owner Ben Walton said about 500 people visited Summit to receive various levels of flight training.

“People from all over the world come here to fly our planes,” he said. “They want to come here for the mountain flying and modern equipment.”

There are 12 planes in the Summit fleet. Most of the planes are made by Diamond Aircraft of Austria. Diamond boasts the most fuel-efficient planes on the market, a testament, they say, to a country where gasoline is expensive. The planes also have a strong safety record, a draw for flight students and parents footing the bill for a pilot’s license.

“The typical flight school has 30-year-old planes,” Walton said. “Our airplanes are new.”

Fancy planes and beautiful skies aside, Walton said Summit was named one of the top five flight schools because his students.

“What’s exciting about the award is you have to be nominated by students,” Walton said. “Then they grade you on 47 elements.”

Summit scored high in a few key categories including education quality and community involvement. In education quality, the passion from instructors like the Fenn brothers is exactly what the AOPA was looking for. The community involvement piece is something Chief Flight Instructor Janine Nunes is passionate about.

“We’re always willing to show people around out here,” she said. “Come out and check the place out and find out what we’re about.”

For kids aged 9 to 12, Summit hosts a summer day camp. At camp, students learn about the four forces of flight. They also learn how to read a map and GPS. Once they do, kids get to go up in a plane and look for certain coordinates that may lead to a spectacular view of the “M” or a farmer’s field with a special design cut into it.

Teens can participate in a longer aviation camp and put flight time that counts toward a pilot’s license.

Nunes said she loves getting people of all ages into a plane.

“If you’ve ever thought or wondered what it’s like to fly a plane, come cross it off your bucket list,” she said. “It’s a totally different experience than your day job.”

Walton says learning to fly gives pilots a new lease on life.

“It’s an opportunity to learn a skill that’s very rewarding. It opens up the world,” he said. “You become part of a community, the aviation community.”

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