In 2015, more than a third of all general aviation aircraft deliveries came from Wichita airplane manufacturers Bombardier Learjet and Textron Aviation’s Cessna and Beechcraft in Sedgwick County.
So it’s probably not a big surprise that the county boasts a larger number of active pilots than any of the state’s other 104 counties – and than any counties in Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma.
The presence of those companies tends to rub off on people, including those who don’t have any connection with the industry that is a major economic driver for the area.
One of those people is banker Trish Minard, who more than a decade ago pursued a private pilot’s license.
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“The interesting part is nobody in my family flies, and I didn’t know a single other pilot,” she said.
The Federal Aviation Administration’s active pilots database shows 1,870 active pilots living in Sedgwick County as of Feb. 1, accounting for 28 percent of the state’s active pilots.
Minard, CEO of Southwest National Bank, became one of them in January 2003, three months after she started her private pilot training. She has since purchased a 1971 Cessna 182 and added to her aviation credentials by earning commercial ratings in multi-engine, instrument and seaplane.
“I’d been promoted to president of the bank and was working a lot of hours,” she said. “I came home from work one day and said to my husband, ‘I thought there was more to life than this.’ ”
He asked her what one thing she wasn’t doing that she’d like to do. Flying was her answer.
“It ended up we both took flight lessons,” said Minard, who now has about 1,300 flight hours.
Her interest in flying started in college, she said, when she was a member, and later treasurer, of Kansas State University’s skydiving club.
Beechcraft, Cessna and Learjet delivered 729 piston and turboprop airplanes and business jets in 2015, according to the General Aviation Manufacturers Association. That’s out of 2,808 total general aviation airplane deliveries, according to the most recent, full-year data available from the trade group.
Those companies have some effect on the city’s strong pilots’ ranks, both directly and indirectly.
Textron Aviation, for instance, has a flying club that gives its employees, retirees and their immediate families access to pilot instruction and discounted aircraft rentals. The club has more than 400 members, a Textron Aviation spokeswoman said.
Minnesota native Bonnie Johnson took up flying instruction in 1985 after coming to Wichita to work for Boeing.
“I was an aerospace engineer and into airplanes, but not flying them,” Johnson said.
What pushed her into becoming a pilot, though, was not her work at Boeing and later at Cessna.
It was her late husband “who was really into flying.”
“Our first date was an airplane ride, and I loved it,” she said.
Then she became partners with him on an airplane, a “two-seat taildragger.” At that point, “I have no excuses,” Johnson said. “If I have an airplane, I just need to find an instructor and learn to fly.”
More than 30 years and 900 flight hours later, Johnson is still flying and has added an instrument rating to her credentials.
Johnson thinks the industry plays a part in contributing to a flying culture in the city, but that culture is not overt.
“I think it’s kind of hidden,” she said. “I think there’s a lot of worker bees and with the airplanes they are making they could be flying. But it doesn’t seem to be as much above ground as you would think it would be.”
Once someone has tapped into that culture, it’s easy to get drawn in and become a pilot, Johnson said.
“Absolutely. If you want it, it can happen,” she said, adding a number of groups inside and outside of Wichita work to support an interest in flying, including the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Experimental Aircraft Association, Women in Aviation and the Kansas Ninety-Nines, the local chapter of the international female pilots group.
“When we find someone who’s interested in flying, we try to get them connected,” said Johnson, who’s treasurer of the Kansas Ninety-Nines.
Minard said there’s one thing she’s learned to appreciate about Wichita’s flying culture: When she is in other cities and people learn that she flies, the general reaction is “Wow! You’re a pilot?”
But back home, Minard said, she’s no longer in an exclusive club. “Everybody is a pilot here in Wichita.”