Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Captain Alan Neben: Lexington, Nebraska, native flies first Skywest jet to Kearney Regional Airport (KEAR)

Right to left: First Officer Jennifer Mason, Captain Alan Neben and Flight Attendant Bernadette Archuletta pose on the tarmac after their flight into Kearney.

KEARNEY — It might have been SkyWest’s first time in Kearney, but for Alan Neben, piloting the first aircraft into Kearney was something of a homecoming.

SkyWest officially opened their flight services in Kearney on Wednesday September 6th and it was no accident that Neben was the pilot. Neben grew up north of Lexington and worked at the Kearney Regional Airport for three years.

Neben said he became interested in flying at a young age. His father, Lester Neben, was friends with Stanley Strumpler, an Alaskan Bush pilot. Strumpler gave Neben some of his first airplane rides at the ages of three and four.

“I loved it and it fostered a lifelong love of flying,” Neben said. “My dad learned to fly himself shortly after that and flying with him continued my love of aviation.”

Lester Neben would become heavily involved in the Nebraska Chapter of the International Flying Farmers and that involvement in flying would influence Neben for the rest of his life.

“At the age of 16, in the summer of 1977 I started working for John Wilson at Wilson Flying Service in Lexington,” said Neben. “I worked for John throughout high school and the summer after I graduated. At the same time I started taking flying lessons and acquired my private licenses in 1979 as a senior in high school.”

Neben went on to enroll in the airplane mechanics course at Western Nebraska Technical College in Sidney while working to pass his flying ratings and pass the Instruments, Commercial and Flight Instructor testing.

The spring of 1981 proved fortuitous for Neben. He and some friends were flying to Norfolk when the weather deteriorated and they were diverted to Kearney Regional Airport. While at the airport he began talking with Don Streeter, the owner of Kearney Air Charter. Neben mentioned that he was graduating in May with his Airplane Mechanics Licenses and Flight Instructors rating. The conversation ended with Streeter offering Neben a job at Kearney Air Charter when he graduated, said Neben.

Don Streeter, who was present at the inaugural SkyWest opening, said he started Kearney Air Charter in 1974 and hired Neben as an instructor to train new pilots. Streeter would later go on to help Neben find a job with Skywest. Streeter lives north of Holdrege with an airstrip where he still instructs new pilots with the three aircraft he owns.

Over the next three years Neben worked at Kearney Air Charter where he instructed student pilots, flew charter flights and worked on aircrafts.

“Don taught me to be an aerial applicator, politically correct term for crop duster,” said Neben. “He also taught me how to fly his Twin Engine Cessna 402 and I took my first multi-engine part 135 check rides with the FAA.”

Neben recalled a story of when Streeter was teaching him how to be a crop duster. Neben was flying a small aircraft with Streeter sitting next to him.

“On my early passes across the field I would start to pull up to miss the power lines too early according to Don. I didn’t want to get near the lines but in order to do a good job you need to stay down on the field as long as possible. I figured out the perfect time to start pulling up. I watched Don’s hands with my peripheral vision. If I stayed down on the field until Don started to reach for the controls himself he was happy. If I pulled up to go over the wires before he reached for the controls he said I had pulled up to soon,” Neben said.

In August of 1984, John Wilson approached Neben about purchasing Wilson Flying Service at Lexington Regional Airport. Neben said he was interested, but did not have the money to be able to afford to buy the business. He said that Wilson had a few things happen that made him want to retire sooner rather than later. Wilson signed the business over to Neben with his father, Lester Neben, as co-signer.

“In hind sight it was a foolhardy move,” said Neben. “We purchased an aerial application business in the fall after the season was over during the second worse agriculture depression since the 1920s.”

Neben said to make ends meet he flew freight for the GP Express hauling Fed Ex freight at night from North Platte to Grand Island to Omaha and returning in the morning. He also started a small charter business with a single engine, single pilot part 135 certification. This was later expanded to a multi-engine, multi pilot IFR certification.

“Our main business was always aerial application, but we also provided flight instruction, aircraft charter, aircraft maintenance and pilot service on corporate aircraft,” said Neben. “In addition I was also the Lexington Municipal Airport Manager. I was in charge of mowing, snow removal, runway light maintenance, et cetera.”

Even though the business was successful, Neben said it was very demanding in part due to complying with government regulations concerning a FAA charter business, chemicals for aerial application and aircraft fuel. After 16 years of flying under power lines, Neben said he was ready for a change.

In the winter of 1998 Neben made the decision to sell Wilson Flying Service to apply for an airline job. Despite nearly 20 years of flying, Neben had no jet time, so he never considered larger airlines like United or Delta. He said his research pointed him to a smaller regional airline called SkyWest.

Neben said SkyWest was financially solid and every pilot he spoke to, who had worked for them, said that they had loved it. He also mentioned they did not furlough pilots — when pilots are made to take a temporary leave from work due to outside circumstances. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, many major airlines at the time were subjected to one or three furloughs, Neben said.

SkyWest stayed strong and is now the sixth largest airline in the world with 4,600 pilots and over 2,000 flights per day, he said. The interview process was tough but Neben said that he prepared well and was hired. He started off as the first officer or co-pilot on an Embaraer EMB 120 Brasilia, a 30 seat turboprop aircraft.

During this time the hazards of operating aircraft tragically were shown. On June 3, 2001 Lester Neben, his second wife Janet Neben and Roberta Schneidereit died in a plane crash near Lyons, Colorado.

When asked how this affected his outlook on being a pilot or if it caused any doubts about further flying, Neben said, “The long answer to that would be a book, but in short no. Airline flying is one of the safest things a person can do.”

Neben upgraded to First Officer, or pilot on a Canadair Bombardier CRJ 200, a 50 seat passenger jet. In January of 2004 he was upgraded to Captain and spent most of his time flying the CRJ 700, a 70 seat passenger jet. Just last year, Neben became qualified to fly into Aspen, Colorado. SkyWest is the only airline that flies into Aspen and they do all of United, Delta and America’s flying into Aspen, said Neben. Now he spends much of his time flying into Aspen from the major hubs in the United States.

When asked why flying the first SkyWest flight into Kearney was important to him, Neben said, “It’s significant for me because I started my professional pilot career there. Without Don Streeter hiring me and teaching me everything he did, I wouldn’t be where I’m at. I taught my first student at Kearney, flew my first charter flight from there, learned to fly crop dusters there and flew my first turbo prop airplane from Kearney. Since SkyWest has been my career for the last 19 years it will be an honor to fly the first SkyWest flight into where it all started for me.”

Neben piloted the first SkyWest aircraft, a CRJ 200 into Kearney on Wednesday, Sept. 5. The afternoon started with a ribbon cutting to officially welcome SkyWest to Kearney. Soon after, Neben landed with passengers from Denver and was greeted by the Kearney Area Chamber of Commerce and the City of Kearney.

Neben said he pulled some strings to be able to pilot the flight and was allowed to pick his crew. On their days off First Officer Jennifer Mason and Flight Attendant Bernadette Archuletta both accompanied him on his homecoming flight.

Neben said of the experience, “I feel very blessed to have done a job my whole adult life that I love. This is my 37th year as a working pilot and I look forward to going to work every day. SkyWest has not only provided me a paycheck but I have made many lifelong friends. So besides getting paid to fly a jet all over the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, I get to work with great people.”

Original article can be found here ➤ https://lexch.com

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