April 8, 2015

Wounded Veteran Earns Career In Aviation

Chris Gschwendtner at Rainbow Aviation.

Chris trains at Rainbow Aviation.

Chris Gschwendtner was lucky to be alive after his vehicle was struck by an explosive while on the infamous IED Highway between Baghdad and the city’s international airport. He had a concussion, but knew he had dodged the big one.  Then less than two months later, Chris had to be airlifted to a field hospital after a rocket exploded next to him in while he was in the city’s “Green Zone”.  The concussive force of  both explosions left the young infantryman with a traumatic brain injury (TBI), the hidden injury so common to those serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  His injuries put him on the path to leaving active duty, and cut short his plan to become a helicopter pilot.

For the young man who grew up in a military family, his first mission became finding a way to continue serving  his country, and he has done that by becoming a member of the U. S. Army Reserves. His second mission was to prove to himself that he can still excel as a student; this time in aviation. Studying doesn’t come as easily for the recipient of two Purple Hearts as it did when he earned a  business degree from Penn State, so Chris simply bears down and works harder. That’s how he became a Sport Pilot early in 2011, and that’s how he has now become a certified Light Sport Repairman.

With tuition and expenses paid through his Able Flight Career Training Scholarship, Chris graduated with a 98 on his final exam at Rainbow Aviation in California, and within days was hired by the maintenance department at Chesapeake Sport Pilot near his home in Maryland (where he earned his Sport Pilot Certificate).

Chris Gschwendtner

Chris training for his new career in aircraft repair and maintenance.

“Chris is an outstanding example of why we created this scholarship”, said Charles Stites of Able Flight. “With the help of a generous donor we paid for his training, and Chris has now proven he deserved the opportunity. During his training at Rainbow Aviation I heard that he didn’t even take a weekend day off. He just kept pushing himself to learn as much as he could. Now  his dedication has paid off with his new job at Chesapeake Sport Pilot.”

Of his scholarship and his new career, Gschwendtner said, “This opportunity has opened so many new doors for me. I hope that I can live up to that and make all the people that make Able Flight possible very proud. I want to thank  them once again for seeing the potential in me and giving me this amazing opportunity.”

To support training for other wounded veterans, visit here.



ForeFlight Sponsors Able Flight

Tyson Weihs and Charles Stites

(L-R) Tyson Weihs of ForeFlight and Charles Stites of Able Flight

ForeFlight, a leading provider of aviation software for pilots has become a sponsor of Able Flight’s unique flight training program for people with  physical disabilities. In addition to a financial donation for the scholarship fund, ForeFlight will provide software for students to use during their training.

Co-founder Jason Miller said, “ForeFlight is exceptionally pleased to help Able Flight in their efforts.  Flying is true freedom, and Able Flight provides that freedom to so many wonderful people.  It’s truly a privilege to sponsor that work.”

“We’re honored to have ForeFlight  join us in our mission to use aviation to change the lives of people with disabilities,” said Charles Stites of Able Flight. “ForeFlight’s co-founders  Tyson Weihs and Jason Miller are both pilots, and they clearly understand  the impact that learning to fly can have on  people who only need an opportunity to prove their abilities.  It has been amazing to see their company’s growth over the last few years, and we’re excited that our student pilots will have the opportunity to use their software.”

Weihs and Miller created their company to take advantage of their software design experience, their knowledge of flying, and the new platform offered by the iPhone. With the introduction of the iPad, flight planning and inflight aviation software applications have become nearly ubiquitous,  and ForeFlight’s Mobile HD application is one of the most popular. To learn more about ForeFlight, visit their website.

Wounded Veteran Receives Scholarship

Chris Gschwendtner

Sgt. Chris Gschwendtner

Sergeant Chris Gschwendtner felt  fortunate that he had suffered “only a concussion”  after an explosion destroyed his vehicle on the infamous “IED Alley”, the highway from Baghdad to the  city’s international airport. It was Valentine’s Day of 2008, and the young infantryman had escaped with body and spirit intact. But, not for long.

Less than five weeks later, Chris was in the shower room at his base when insurgents fired a  rocket into the compound, and when he came to, covered in glass and building debris, Chris wasn’t able to respond to the questions of his rescuers.

After being airlifted  to a hospital, he learned that he had sustained a second Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), the common but hidden injury so prevalent in  modern war.  Because  he wanted  to return home with his unit, after his  time in the hospital he convinced his superiors to allow him to remain in Iraq a few more weeks. But returning to the States didn’t end his service, now Chris  is a member of the U.S. Army Reserves.

Though the Army was still happy to allow the young man to remain in service,  because of his injuries they continually denied his request for a transfer to an Army flight training program. So, on his own, and at his ownChris Gschwendtner expense, Chris earned a Sport Pilot Certificate by training at Chesapeake Sport Aviation at the Bay Bridge Airport near Washington, DC. From January to March of 2011 he trained with instructor Helen Woods, and though studying no longer comes as easily as it did when he earned a business degree from Penn State, Chris re-doubled his efforts and excelled in his training.

Learning to fly fulfilled a childhood dream for Chris, and created another, that of becoming an aviation mechanic. With his selection as the second recipient of an Able Flight Career Training Scholarship, he’ll  soon  begin training at Rainbow Aviation in California for certification as a Light Sport Repairmen with a Maintenance Rating.

With a pilots license already earned, and a career in aviation ahead of him, Chris plans to use his accomplishments to encourage other wounded veterans to explore aviation as a way to challenge themselves. In his application essay he wrote, “I feel like if I win this scholarship I can inspire people not to give up. Especially since TBI has become one of the most common injuries resulting from the war on terrorism. I have learned if there is something in life that you want, you have to have the drive to make it happen no matter what. You can make your dreams a reality; no one else is able to do it for you. After having my hopes and dreams crushed I did not accept defeat or give up. I just knew I had to pick myself up and try harder.”

Able Flight/Purdue Training Program A Huge Success


AF Students with Purdue instructors

Front (L-R) Eric Ingram & Kevin Crombie, Back (L-R) Justin Lowe, Jermaine Strachan, Korel Cudmore, Aaron Michaels & Derek Stewart

When four Able Flight scholarship winners arrived at Purdue University’s campus and airport in West Lafayette, Indiana in late May, they had just a few well-defined goals and a singular mission. They were there to meet their instructors, learn about their airplanes and immediately start flying because they had less than five weeks to go from novice students to licensed pilots. Then the rain came.

For five straight days northwestern Indiana was on the edge of the huge and damaging storms that devastated towns and rural areas in the Midwest. If it wasn’t rain it was winds and low ceilings that kept Eric Ingram, Kevin Crombie, Korel Cudmore and SPC Jermaine Strachan grounded. But with their  flight instructors Aaron Michaels, Justin Lowe, Derek Stewart ,Greg Taylor, and ground school instructor Geoff Aschberger, they made the best use of their time by beginning their studies for the knowledge test (later they would all pass it on the same day).

Finally the weather cleared and the first flights began. Over the next weeks the pace quickened and it began to appear that they might all finish and go for their checkrides on schedule near the end of June. But soon, even more  wind and rain, necessary time off to inspect airplanes, and a few small mechanical issues began to disrupt the new schedule. Once again, the students and instructors doubled their efforts, and during the last week of June Kevin Crombie of Virginia became the first to pass his checkride.

“There’s no doubt that the first ten days or so of the five week program were hard for all involved,” said Charles Stites, executive director of Able Flight. ” Everyone at Purdue was living the frustration every day, and I was  home in NC watching the radar and  wondering when they would get a break. But all along the way I was getting reassuring messages from Bernie Wulle, my chief contact at Purdue, and the person on site who runs the program. Bernie would be probably be too kind to admit that he wasn’t looking forward to my near daily calls, but he was constant in his belief that everything would work out, and when it counted, he and his team came through wonderfully.”

Kevin Crombie just after first solo

Kevin Crombie just after first solo

Wulle managed the program last year and again this year, and said of the effort by the students and instructors,” I think all the credit goes to the students and instructors for not letting anything get them down or stop them from completing their training. Purdue University and the Department of Aviation Technology have made every effort to attract, welcome and support the students and give them an opportunity to display their talents and skills. If the aviation industry is to advance to a higher level, it must embrace the abilities these young men and women possess.”

The two trainer aircraft  for this year’s program were a Sky Arrow 600 LSA  equipped with hand controls and provided by Philly Sport Pilot of Wilmington, Delaware, and a Flight Design CT provided by Peak Aviation Center of Colorado Springs. In advance of the student’s arrivals, instructors Wynn Grainger of Philly Sport Pilot and Chad Troxler of Peak Aviation ferried the planes from their home bases to Purdue and then checked out two Purdue instructors in each of the planes.

The  Peak Aviation Center CT is the first in the U.S. to receive newly-available hand controls for Flight Design aircraft, but as the installation schedule was uncertain as the training was set to begin, all of the training for Crombie and Ingram (who both use wheelchairs) was conducted in the adapted Sky arrow. Cudmore who is deaf, and Strachan who is a wounded veteran still capable of flying an airplane with rudder pedals both earned their licenses in the CT.

In addition to the primary instructors, Wulle called on Robert “Mitch” Grundman to step in for stage check flights, a real

Able Flight students with Purdue jet

(L-R) Eric Ingram, Korel Cudmore, Jermaine Strachan & Kevin Crombie

advantage and confidence builder for the students. And with the two airplanes accumulating a lot of hours, both had to be taken off line for maintenance and inspections, a task ably handled by Brian Strim. Near the end of the project the CT developed a quirky radio problem just as Strachan was about to complete his solo work, and Joshua D. Wright  of  Lafayette Avionics generously put the CT at the front of the line in his shop and fixed the glitch at no charge.

Said Stites, ” Even with planning that began almost as soon as the last year’s project was completed, and with arrangements for training aircraft, travel and everything else that could be anticipated taken care of months in advance, you still have to have students, instructors and staff that are flexible and have the attitude that nothing will prevent the Able Flight scholarship students from having every opportunity for success. And those are the people we had at Purdue. After our second year of doing this at Purdue we have a 100% success rate, and you just can’t do any better than that.”