Brandywine Flight School’s new owner takes new pilots under his wing

Brandywine Flight School owner Stephen Richards flies high over Chester County.
Brandywine Flight School owner Stephen Richards flies high over Chester County. PETE BANNAN – DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA
A Brandywine Flight School Cessna tail dragger takes off.
A Brandywine Flight School Cessna tail dragger takes off. PETE BANNAN – DIGITAL FIRST MEDIA

WEST GOSHEN >> Be passionate about your work and every day is a dream. That is the philosophy adopted by Stephen Richards, who a year ago retired from his job and took ownership of Brandywine Flight School.

“I was a lawyer in a pharmaceutical company and as I turned 60, I thought ‘if not now, when?’” Richards said from the flight school offices at the Brandywine Airport complex on Ward Avenue.”This is my passion.”

That passion is seconded by longtime flight school owner Ted Behrle, who sold him the business.

“I selected Stephen Richards because of his passion, business experience and focus on actively engaging students,” Behrle said.

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Richards, who grew up in Bethesda, Maryland, went to George Washington University for his undergrad and law degree, then the University of Pennsylvania, where he got an MBA. His most recent company was Incyte Corp.

Richards is not new to flying; he is a glider pilot and serves on the board of directors of the Brandywine Soaring Association.

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Richards said business growth has been robust over the past year. The flight school has gone from four to eight planes and is planning on adding a ninth. With the added planes, the company also doubled the number of instructors.

“Our instructors are highly experienced and trained,” Richards added. “We have former military and active corporate pilots who love teaching how to fly.”

Richards’ requirements for instructor include: experience, proximity to airport, the right personality, someone with a sense of the community, the ability to teach and the proper motivation.

“We ask, why do you want to teach? Are they just looking to get in flight hours or do they really want to train pilots?” Richards said. “I’m looking for a passion and love of flying.”

Chief instructor at Brandywine is Jim Wawrzyniak, a retired Navy instructor from Reading who has 20 years of air service in active military and reserves.

“Flying is relativity easy; it takes a person who really wants to do it and has the time,” said Wawrzyniak. “Thinking and flying (together) is the hard part. Making good decisions, flying weeds out the incompetents.”

Richards said in Brandywine Flight School training, the focus is on safety and the basics of flying. The two new plane models the flight school have purchased conform to that view. They are a Cessna 140A and Cessna 170B – known as tail draggers or tailwheel aircraft.

“They will offer full ‘classic flying’ instruction,” Richards said. “Tail draggers are harder to operate on the ground but they prevent complacency, which the FAA has identified as a major problem.

Richards said new pilots often train on more modern planes with three-wheeled gear known as tricycles, that have better maneuverability on the ground and while landing. Tail draggers are harder to operate and have a different center of gravity than planes with more modern tricycle-style landing gear.

“They make you a better pilot and will improve your landing,” Richards stressed. “Too much technology creates pilots who don’t learn the basics. That is what many pilots like about the tail draggers — they will make you a better pilot, they focus your basic piloting skills.”

Richards said there aren’t many schools around where a student or trained pilot can learn the skills necessary to operate a tail wheel aircraft. The flight school also rents the planes to certified pilots who want to keep their skills sharp.

Richards said you can own a plane for the price of a car. The tail draggers can cost in the $30,000 range, but the maintenance costs of owning a plane are high. Planes need to be inspected every 100 flight hours and oils changed every 50 flight hours. A gallon of 100 octane fuel is $5.40 a gallon.

“We don’t delay any maintenance,” Richards said.

Richards said his students range in age from 13 to 77, and that the West Chester area is a good place for prospective pilots. He said clients can expect to spend as much as $13,000 for the training to allow them to pass an FAA practical and written test. The flight school also uses a flying simulator students can use to train up to 20 hours toward certification.

Richards recently re-instituted an old flying tradition of honoring students’ first solo flight. The instructor cuts off the shirt tail the new pilot was wearing and pins it to the wall. That is the point when the instructor trusts the student can safely fly on their own. Richards said that typically happens halfway though the training, but there is still more study and instruction ahead.

“Learning to fly requires time, sacrifice, discipline, focus and money. You learn leadership,” he stressed. “The ability to control a plane in space.

“You need to be totally engaged in a changing environment. It’s a process of risk analysis and contingency planning, but you can have serious fun.”

Many of the flight school’s students are in high school.

“Parents love coming around and seeing their kids learning,” Richards said.

Henry Elgin, a senior at Downingtown East, has been working toward getting his wings for the past couple of years. He said he loves flying a plane and seeing everything from 1,000 feet in the air.

“It’s completely different,” said Elgin, who is considering pursuing a career with an airline and has been accepted to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which specializes in aviation.

“Our motivation here is create a safe pilot using the process and resources,” Richards said. “We’re going to get you through efficiently. Efficient learning corresponds to safety.”