It doesn’t take much to figure out the value of the Prescott Airport and its impact on the community when you get to hear the stories of flight students, starting out as wide-eyed kids with a dream and ending up as professional pilots who are saving lives, building homes and raising families. This is one of many such stories. This is Ben Lewis’ story.
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” – Leonardo da Vinci
This statement has forever held true in my life, ever since I went on my first flight with my cousin, who is now a first officer with Southwest Airlines. When he flew into town and stayed at our house, it was my favorite thing to sit in the back of his small tail-dragger and have him taxi me to the end of the runway and back. I was so small that I was forced to sit on a cushion and a parachute to see out the back window of his airplane. Since as long as I can remember I have always wanted to fly. It is a deep yearning that cannot be described in any other word than an obsession.
When the fateful day came for me to actually fly, I remember feeling the engine throttling up and squeezing me back in the seat. I was secured by a five-point harness and smelled the exhaust from the small engine, as we lurched forward. The moment I was certain that my place in life was in the air was when we were no longer bound to the ground. This moment was so vividly painted forever in my mind. I was watching the small wheels spinning faster and faster, feeling every single crack and indentation in the runway, and, in the blink of an eye, the ground began to shrink away and everything was smooth. Everything was perfect.
From that moment on, everything in my life was centralized around flying: my room, toys, movies, books, and jobs. I obtained my first job related to flight when I was sixteen, with a local helicopter flight school. Well, it was almost local. It was an hour drive from where I was living, and every single penny that I earned went toward paying for gas. I did not care; all I wanted was to surround myself with everything that involved flying. From there on out, I found myself working different jobs in the summers around aircraft. I did everything from washing planes to working inventory in a helicopter parts warehouse.
Training Begins at Prescott Municipal Airport (KPRC)
When I finally was able to begin training in August 2008, I started my four year degree at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and my flight training at Guidance Aviation. I had never felt that I was academically skilled, until I began taking classes that actually interested me. I was enthralled by everything that the professors and my flight instructor introduced me to. It was all incredibly fascinating, and, as a result, most of my nights were spent studying different topics about aviation.
Any aviator will confess that there are a few moments they will never forget. This usually includes the moment when the instructor says that they are ready to fly solo. My flight instructor, JC, who had taught me everything that I know about flying, gave me a call one night and told me to get plenty of sleep. He informed me that I would be flying by myself the following morning. Naturally, I could not sleep all night, out of excitement.
My first solo flight was on a cold November morning in 2008. Being without a car made it particularly difficult, because I had to leave an hour earlier in order to ride my bike to the airport. That did not matter to me, because I loved flying. When we took off and flew to the practice area it was an exceptionally quiet flight. Most of the time was spent in self-reflection and anticipation. After we set down on the ground, JC looked at me with a smile that removed any question of doubt from my mind. He stepped out of the aircraft. When he turned around and gave me the thumbs up, I slowly added power and pitch. The aircraft, now lighter in weight, jumped off of the ground with enthusiasm. I inched the controls forward and slowly gained momentum. As I rotated for takeoff, I looked out of the window and saw the ground shrinking away in the exact way that it had when I was younger. Everything was perfect again.
Hard Work Pays Off – Landing my First Flying Job
I continued to learn more and more throughout flight training. I checked the obligatory boxes off of the list in order to achieve the next goal- a job. Staying extra hours at Guidance Aviation and meeting with professors at Embry-Riddle paid off on one fateful day when I received a phone call asking if I would like to join the team. The first job in this industry is often the hardest to obtain, and when I was in the instructor’s seat for the first time, reality set in. Everything that I studied, trained for, and practiced, was now resting on my shoulders. I am not going to lie, it was extremely nerve-wracking at the time, but this is a career that rivals no other. I have a corner office with windows, and I can play with really cool toys all day long. When I began my job, I thought that I knew a lot about flying, only to find out that I did not. In the first two months of instructing I learned more than I could have ever hoped to while I pursued my degree and flight training. I made it my personal goal to diversify myself as much as possible before finding the next tier job in the industry. During my time at Guidance I had many different roles: I worked as a flight instructor, check instructor, safety manager, manager of flight standards, and the touchdown autorotation instructor. All of these roles were uniquely different and challenging in their own respect. One of the more unique opportunities that I was presented with at Guidance Aviation was a chance to give back to my community.
Saving Lives, Helping Others – Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, Rescue 1 Pilot
The owner of Guidance Aviation, John Stonecipher, donated a helicopter to the local sheriff’s office to assist with search and rescue operations within Yavapai County. Since I began my flight training I have always wanted to focus my career in the direction of helping others. (See YCSO Rescue 1 Story). I am hopeful that this will include search and rescue, flight for life, firefighting, or preferably all three. The Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office allowed me the unique role of performing search and rescue operations, with a relatively low flight time. I have been dispatched on many missions and been able to help out many people in their time of need. It gives me great pride to often times be the best part of someone’s worst day, and that is why I continue to fly with the Sheriff today.
Taking-Off and Building a Family and Home
Another unique opportunity at Guidance Aviation was the ability to sweep my wife off of her feet. On November 10, 2013, I rented one of the company helicopters and surprised my beautiful girlfriend, at the time, with a flight out to Sedona. I had it all planned out: fly around during sunset, take in the beautiful scenery, and land for dinner. Shortly after landing, while walking to the restaurant, I scrounged up the courage, dropped on one knee, and proposed (See story “Powerless”). To this day, I am not entirely sure that she said yes because she loves me or if she just wanted to make sure that she had a ride home after dinner. Going on year two of marriage, I think it is safe to say that she just wanted a ride home. We have never been happier. We have a new home, a menagerie of animals, and we love to travel together. My central focus was once strictly on flying, but now it is also on spending time with my family. Everything is perfect.
Professional Pilot – Maverick Helicopters
In the past year, I decided that it was time to move on with my career so that I might get closer to my dream job. I am currently at Maverick Helicopters, the premier tour operator at the Grand Canyon. Maverick is celebrated in the helicopter industry as one of the safest and most professional tour operators on the planet. I have been with the company for about a year now, and I wholeheartedly agree. I am now in charge of a helicopter that is full of people who want the memory of a lifetime. Fortunately for me, the pressure does not rest entirely on myself; the Grand Canyon tends to take off some of the heat. Talk about an office view! I thought that it was nice before, but now it is incredible.
My future is unpredictable. It has been an incredible journey so far, and I have only just begun. My career goals have never changed, and I find myself always seeking opportunities that lead to my dream job. There is no way that I could be where I am today without the help of everyone that has been in my life. This includes my cousin, who hooked me on flying, my family, especially my beautiful, supportive wife, Kristie, John Stonecipher of Guidance Aviation, who has afforded me so many incredible opportunities, and my other employers, who have put up with my stubbornness and naivety. I thank them all from the very bottom of my heart and hope that I can live up to their greatness someday. In the meantime, I like to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride. After all, everything is perfect.
-Ben Lewis, Professional Pilot, Maverick Helicopters, YCSO Rescue 1 Pilot