Eighteen miles northwest of the Pittsburgh International Airport in Pennsylvania, you will find a strip of runway that is 4,510 feet long. That runway belongs to the Beaver County Airport (KBVI). It has served as the local county airport since 1953. Like many general aviation Airports in this country it is more than just a facility to land aircraft and store them. This is a place where aviation history is preserved at Air Heritage, the local air museum. It is the home of businesses such as Moore Aviation. It is a place for students to learn, as the Community College of Beaver County’s aviation programs are based there. And perhaps most importantly, it is a place for social gathering. A place where friendships are made that last lifetimes.
In the late 1990s there was a flight school on the field named Pro Flight Center. Pro Flight, as it was usually called, was owned by a man named Gene Schumacher. The aircraft there included typical trainers like Piper Cherokees, Cessna 152s, and 172s, as well as some non-standard choices like a Super Decathlon and a Lake Amphibian. Gene would use these aircraft to teach younger generations how to fly. And along the way we learned a lot from him. Over the years, I think most of us started to discover that we learned about far more than just airplanes from our time at Pro Flight. For Gene, I believe this was his plan all along.
Gene was born on June 4, 1937 in Springfield, Minnesota. He was enamored with aviation at an early age, and when he was just ten years old, his father bought him a ride in an Ercoupe at the County fair. Soon he was taking flying lessons. He worked at the airport, earning enough pay to get more lessons. In the fall of 1957, the wheels of the Vagabond Gene was flying left the grass runway of Springfield for the first time, with just him at the controls. The same day of this solo, he also started an apprenticeship to become an aircraft mechanic. He eventually earned his A&P/IA as well. On the flying side of his training he earned his CFI as well as commercial and ATP.
Gene loved anything that flew, and he flew anything he could. He took jobs crop dusting, instructing, and charter flying, before flying DC-3s for Lake Central Airlines. Gene loved the DC-3 and the routes that he flew, which were mainly Chicago to Pittsburgh. He stuck with the company when it was purchased in 1968 by Allegheny Airlines. Over the years, Allegheny became USAir, and, along the way, Gene was checked out in the Convair 580, the Douglas DC-9, the Fokker F100, and the Boeing 727, 757, and 767, eventually becoming chief pilot.
“He was the finest stick and rudder pilot I had ever seen. He could make an airplane dance like a ballerina while using only his thumb and first finger on the stick,” said Capt. Dan Sneddon, one of Gene’s students and close friends.
Gene bought the flight school that became Pro Flight in 1996, and this is where he became a mentor to so many. Pro Flight worked with the Community College of Beaver County training pilots and controllers from all over the country, developing a great reputation in the process. This was where I was lucky enough to cross paths with Gene. I was just out of high school and about to start college, and I was looking for a job. As I signed up for my lessons, I mentioned to Gene that he had a great looking fleet of aircraft. He told me he was looking for help in line service. Taking that job began my aviation career. And it couldn’t have been for a kinder, more supportive person.
“At Pro Flight we became family. Family then and family always. At the center of our family was Capt. Gene Schumacher,” said Capt. Jodi Graham, airline pilot and Pro-Flight alumnus.
So many of my friends had jobs where they counted down the clock until they could leave. My job was different. Each day was filled with adventure. You never knew what might show up on the ramp. We had days were EAA’s B-17 Aluminum Overcast showed up for fuel. There was also a gentleman who used to deliver chickens in a DC-3 who would come by.
When work was done for the day, many evenings we would fire up a grill, cook some hamburgers, and throw a football around on the ramp. Maybe we’d go to Sal’s, the Italian restaurant across the street from the airport. Whatever we did, we did it together. I worked with these folks all day as coworkers, and spent time with them after as friends. It was a very special environment, and Gene was the catalyst.
“We ended up having a lot of fun together, Jodi said. “Many of us hung out quite a bit at cookouts or at the local restaurant across from the airport. … After my first stop at Pro Flight Center I knew I didn’t have to look anywhere else. I just felt that’s where I was supposed to be and it ended up being the place I belonged.”
Anyone who has worked line service knows that it can be a long and hard job. I can recall ending many of my days in the dark, filling the fuel truck back up for the next day, looking up at the stars, while talking with Gene and my co-worker Dave. That hard work is work that I would not trade for anything. The friendships made there have lasted decades. The experiences and lessons taught by Gene are ones that are used every day. He didn’t just teach us about airplanes, but about relationships, and people.
“He had a great sense of humor and could tell a great story about a time back when, but Gene always had a lesson, and a purpose,” Dan said. “Whether it was how to handle emergencies or flying an aircraft, he was not just teaching for the moment- he was teaching for life.”
Jodi agrees. “He was an amazing mentor to all of us teaching us not only flying lessons but also life lessons,” she said.
In Gene’s mind, the success of his flight school could be measured by the safety of the pilots and controllers he was training, and how well they did in pursuing their dreams. He worked hard to ensure that the Pro Flight family had any opportunities he could get them. Dan is living proof of this.
“When his students and employees had a chance at being hired on to an airline, if you didn’t take the first available class he would drive you there himself,” he said. “Even if that negatively affected his Flight School or Charter Operation. I had four days’ notice of going to class at Chautauqua Airlines and he took one of those days to give me a lesson on high altitude and high speed aerodynamics. Later on, he taught me about being a check airman during phone calls.”
Gene was always there to support his Pro Flight family. Many of my friends from the flight school will recall a time when I attempted to create my own parallel runway at BVI. My aircraft ended up in the grass next to the runway. As a student pilot I taxied back in the 140 feeling pretty down. As I was preparing to tie the airplane down for the night, Gene came out and said, “Get back in. Let’s work on it again.” It was exactly what I needed at that moment to feel better about the day.
“He was quiet, so when he spoke you took note, made the correction, and listened. Him laughing at me wheel landing the Super Decathlon the first time did a lot more to teach me than yelling would have,” said Dan.
Because of Gene and his wife Maureen, there are a lot more pilots in the world. And they had a caring, supportive home to make that journey from. Every airport should be so lucky as to have a place like we did. It helped shape us as aviators, professionals, and people.
Gene died on August 24, 2021 leaving a huge hole in the lives of our Pro Flight family.
“I’m lucky to have gotten to be part of this family and extremely grateful to have known Gene,” said Jodi.
“I will miss Gene dearly. He would always lend an ear, a story, and a lesson. He lived and will live through the stories of his former students and employees,” said Dan. W
While he may be gone, his legacy will continue. Every time the wheels of an airplane leave the ground being flown by one of the many that learned to fly at Pro Flight, Gene will be thought of. Each time an air traffic controller who went through Gene’s school clears someone to land, he will be remembered. Every time one of the gang he mentored does something to inspire others to follow their aviation dreams, Gene’s memory will live on and never fade.