GRAND LEDGE – Bill Gehman took to the sky in an airplane before ever sitting behind the wheel of a car.
That was 57 years ago, a moment that kicked off a life devoted to aeronautics, and a career that was capped recently when he became just the fourth aviation inductee into Michigan’s Transportation Hall of Honor.
For Gehman, now 73, his connection to flying started simply, as a 16-year-old on his father’s farm in Vermontville.
Earl Gehman didn’t just work the land. He owned his own plane and served as president of the Michigan Flying Farmer’s Association for four years. Before he died in 1984 he taught his son that flight was an escape worth investing in.
“Many of the people in Vermontville got their first airplane ride from my dad,” said Gehman. “We flew quite a bit. It was kind of a relaxing thing for me to do, a way for me to get away from everything that was happening on the ground.”
Although Gehman eventually got a driver’s license, he was hooked on flying. By 19 he had earned his airplane mechanic license and at 21 he had a license to fly commercially.
He would go on to serve as the director of Michigan’s Bureau of Aeronautics, director of the Michigan Aeronautics Commission and was a founder of the Michigan Business Aviation Association.
For Gehman, a life-long fascination with the skies and love of flight became more than a career.
Preserving general aviation
Gehman spent his career working to enhance and preserve airports, improve flight safety, and give aviation a voice in state and national government – but he’s a pilot at heart.
Before he stopped flying in 2006 he co-piloted government flights and flew places himself. Flying kept him connected to the industry in a tangible way.
“I always loved to fly and have always felt that flying is an important part of our transportation industry,” said Gehman. “A lot of the companies that do business in this state use airplanes and need places to land.”
He joined the Michigan Department of Transportation in 1974 as assistant chief of airport project programming. In the years since he’s been an advocate for the industry.
In the late 1980s Gehman helped develop an aggressive program to save struggling airports throughout the state.
Through MDOT’s “Airport Preservation Program” the state purchased about a dozen airports in communities including South Haven, Macomb and Canton townships. Staff worked with the individual community’s to find ways to fund and revive them. Most were sold back to local operators after the facility was deemed healthy.
“It was not the intention of the state to be in the airport ownership business,” said Gehman. “Our constituents were airport people and pilots and they wanted something to help preserve these airports. This was an answer.”
His efforts also extended to smaller communities were there was limited or no air service. Gehman advocated for funding to enhance those facilities or establish new ones. They were an economic boost to places like Traverse City and Marquette.
Above and beyond
“He definitely had aviation in his blood and spent his entire career working for the advancement of aviation in Michigan,” said Mark Noel. “He was also a great guy to work for, very level headed.”
Noel, manager of the planning and development section for MDOT’s Office of Aeronautics worked with Gehman for over a decade. He describes his dedication as “above and beyond.”
That was what set Gehman apart, he said. “More so than any one accomplishment was everything he did outside his normal job duties.”
Gehman joined national and state groups devoted to his field and took an active role in many of them.
He and wife Cynthia also raised three children at their Grand Ledge home, two of whom pursued careers in the field as an air traffic controller and in airline construction.
Gehman said his involvement in the founding of the Michigan Business Aviation Association is one of his career highlights. The group is active in legislative activities that improve and benefit business aviation in the state.
The association advocated to make aviation a mainstream and viable player in the state’s overall transportation system. It’s something pilots and others in the field resisted for years, said Gehman.
“Aviation was kind of separate, by itself,” he said. “It was very controversial in that there were a lot of us, including myself, who felt they would lose some of their identity if they became part of mainstream transportation.”
The association became a voice for aviation, something that was sorely needed.
“We just couldn’t do it all ourselves,” said Gehman.
Now retired, the Transportation Hall of Honor induction last November was meaningful.
“I was very honored to be picked,” he said. “There were not that many aviation people in the hall of fame and to be one of them means something.”
At a glance – Bill Gehman
•Born and raised on a farm in Vermontville
•Graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in aviation engineering in 1965.
•Joined the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1972 as the engineer.
•Joined the State of Michigan Bureau of Aeronautics as an airport engineer in 1974.
•Appointed director of the bureau and director of the Michigan Aeronautics Commission in 1985 and served through 2002.
•Continued his involvement with aviation through his consulting work with Mead & Hunt, retiring in 2013.