Jacob Leichty always knew he wanted to be a pilot when he grew up, and he believes it's fate that he ended up pursuing that dream through Hesston College.

The freshman from Indiana made a trip to Harvey County during Thanksgiving and went flying with an instructor at Hesston College's aviation program. Then, the pilots on his flight home just happened to be graduates of Hesston College.

"It was a sign," Leichty said. "... Flying's been a dream since I was a kid."

Hesston College has an FAA-approved flight school based at the Newton City/County Airport and is one of only two collegiate programs in the state. The unique program draws students from across the country, and so far the college has trained more than 700 pilots since the program was started in 1970.

"Right away I just felt like I was at home," said sophomore Quinn Bowers, from McPherson. "It was just such a comfortable feeling. Hesston was just a perfect fit for me."

On the ground

The Hesston College aviation department operates out of its own facility at the Newton City/County Airport. The department recently experienced an upgrade, with new furniture and paint, a new simulator, new radios and GPS devices for their aircraft, and even a new airplane.

"We're very excited about having these nice facilities to work in and learn in," said Amy Birdsell, chief flight instructor.

The school's Redbird motion simulator is a step up from the college's older, non-motion simulator, Birdsell said. Although the new simulator isn't exactly like flying a real airplane, it allows students to practice a variety of scenarios while safely on the ground, such as different weather conditions, engine failures, aircraft fires, etc.

The school also has its own hangar with seven aircraft — six single engine planes and one twin engine. The fleet is up two from last year, an indication of the increasing demand for the program.

"We're very excited about how the program is growing," Birdsell said. "We have lots of planes in the air."

The school also has a flight planning room where students can check the weather and aircraft maintenance records before they fly.

Taking off

It typically takes students about two to three years to go through the program. The students are drawn to the college for a variety of reasons.

Fritz Lehman, a sophomore from Ohio, said he knew he wanted to come to Hesston College since he was in second grade. He grew up on a dairy farm and always had an interest in a mechanical career. He said he loves to travel and wanted a career "doing something that not just everybody can pick up and do."

Hesston College aviation students start off by logging in 40 hours of flight time their first semester, as they earn their private pilot certificate. Once they've flown for 15 hours, they have an opportunity to fly solo for the first time.

A huge smile broke out on Bowers' face the moment his plane lifted off the ground on his first solo flight.

"I was just so excited," he said.

During the program, students learn how to fly at night; navigate the plane; become comfortable with the aircraft's instruments; take off and land at various airports; and fly at higher altitudes, such as the mountains of New Mexico.

They are trained to respond to emergencies, such as evacuating a smoke-filled cabin or recognizing signs of hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in the body caused by high altitudes.

The school currently has about 50 students. It accepts students who officially enroll with Hesston College and students from the community who are not seeking a degree but would still like flight training.

In the air

Hesston College's motto is "Start here, go everywhere," and it's a motto the aviation department particularly takes to heart.

Dan Miller, director of aviation, said aviation is an increasingly global industry, and he said Hesston College pilots could end up all over the nation or even all over the world.

A student could become an instructor and teach others to fly; pilot corporate or charter jets; work for a major airline; become a mechanic; ship freight through air cargo services such as UPS; or work in aerial agricultural application (fertilizing, seeding).

Students can choose to go through the school's air traffic control program. Hesston College is one of only 36 schools in the United States offering an air traffic control program, and the only one in Kansas.

LifeTeam air ambulance service, which has a location next door to Hesston College Aviation, also has hired some of the college's graduates as air ambulance pilots.

Lehman plans to work as a flight instructor at first but said his dream job would be flying a corporate or charter jet, and Leichty wants to fly corporate or commercial. Bowers said he has a job as an instructor waiting for him at Central Christian College, and long-term he'd like to fly corporate or commercial, like Leichty.

"As long as I'm up in the air, I'm fine," he said.