First in helicopter flight at Kent State

Kristyn Soltis

Pilot’s passion for flying never dipped in time

Shawn Coffy, 22, is the first Kent State student to pass the university’s helicopter flight rating course. Coffy received his private helicopter pilot’s license in August. JESSICA M. KANALAS | DAILY KENT STATER

Credit: DKS Editors

When Shawn Coffy was about 5 years old, he figured out what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

Unlike other children who say they want to be veterinarians or firefighters, but grow up to be car salesmen and bakers instead, Shawn stuck to his childhood dream.

As training planes flew over his home from the nearby Ravenna Arsenal, he looked up, turned to his dad and said, “I want to do that. I want to fly.”

Shawn’s dad, Michael Coffy, called family friend Thomas Fijalkovich, who had access to a plane.

“They took him up in the cockpit and let him sit up there and showed him the different instruments, and ever since then that’s all he ever dreamed of doing was flying,” Michael said.

They flew to Chicago to spend the night and returned home the next day.

“We went flying, and I’ve been hooked ever since,” Shawn said.

Now 22, Shawn earned his private helicopter license in August after about two months, 30.1 hours of flying and a close encounter with an oncoming plane.

As far as Shawn and his helicopter flight instructor Edward Overchuk know, Shawn is the first student at Kent State to pass a helicopter flight rating course.

Overchuk said some faculty members in the College of Technology believe there was a helicopter program at Kent State in the past, but Overchuk has yet to confirm that.

“It’s both very exciting to be first and sort of nerve-racking at the same time,” Shawn said. “I feel pressure to get done on time, finish on the first time and pass my test the first time to promote the course. Right now, I’m the only statistic. So if I’m bad, it looks bad for the course.”

One other Kent State student is working toward becoming a certified flight instructor, and six students are in the ground school for helicopter training, Overchuk said.

Shawn may feel extra anxiety as the student leading the way in the course, and his instructor agrees.

“I would have to say there was more pressure than normal on Shawn to pass,” Overchuk said. “I think anybody who is a pioneer – which we believe he is – I think that puts a lot more pressure on the pilot to succeed his check ride over anyone else because he is the first.”

Shawn could barely put into words the feeling he got from his first helicopter flight, but flashed a big smile.

“It was absolutely amazing,” he said. “Even having all the time in an airplane, it was still completely different.”

Shawn earned his private and commercial airplane licenses by February 2007.

It wasn’t until about 10 hours into Shawn’s helicopter flight time that he was permitted to leave the Portage County Airport area. Until then, he practiced hovering from the hangar to runway following the traffic pattern.

“The first time I got to fly away from the airport was a thrill all over again,” he said.

Shawn flew over his house and made a night-flight trip to Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland.

“The absolute best thing out of flying a helicopter so far was my flight up to Cleveland,” he said.

“We were maybe 100 feet from some of the buildings, so we were flying over and through downtown. Seeing all the lights, flying over the flats, just being that close to it, I mean, I’ve always had a passion for flying at night because you see things like that. In an airplane you never get that close and in a helicopter it almost felt like a video game. It just didn’t seem real at all.”

Burke Lakefront Airport is also the site of Overchuk’s beginning with helicopters.

In 1999, the first helicopter school to open in the Cleveland area was at Burke Lakefront, Overchuk said.

“I started helicopter training and just fell in love with it,” he said.

He has been teaching helicopter flight since 2000.

Overchuk said the most difficult part of flying helicopters is hovering, and Shawn agrees.

“Hovering, just staying in one spot over ground,” Shawn said. “That’s the biggest difference and the hardest thing to get the hang of.”

Overchuk said hovering takes students about an average of 10 hours to master. The rest of the training process is dealing with the basic fundamentals of flight.

After returning from a flight Monday afternoon, Shawn’s hovering skills were evident. He lowered the helicopter to about 4 to 5 feet above the ground, hovering the helicopter between the buildings of Portage County Airport and turning corners before landing in front of hangar 7A.

After landing, Shawn completed the three-minute cool-down checklist and jumped out of the two-seat Schweizer 300CBi. He lowered the wheels to the ground, which allowed him to pull the helicopter into the white hangar with his bare hands.

Shawn remembers his first solo flight in the helicopter without his instructor.

“There was another airplane coming in, and part of the role with the helicopter is we have to avoid airplane traffic,” he said. “So whatever they’re doing, we’re supposed to do the opposite.”

The airplane pilot announced on the radio that he would be turning “upwind” to notify others on the runway.

“Well, he called the wrong leg,” Shawn said as he laughed. “And I reacted to his radio call because I didn’t have him in sight. So as I turned, I saw him coming straight at me. I had made a 180-degree turn into him.”

Both Shawn and the airplane pilot were able to maneuver out of the way, turning in separate directions to avoid a potential crash.

Overchuk seemed proud of his first helicopter flight student when mentioning that Shawn completed his helicopter flight course in the minimum amount of hours required by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“He only spent 30.1 hours in the helicopter,” he said. “That’s one-tenth of an hour over what the FAA requires, which is not a lot.”

Overchuk said on average, students usually take anywhere between 40 and 60 hours.

Amid all his hours spent flying, Shawn manages to balance several jobs with helicopter training.

During the fall, Shawn is an assistant coach for the Southeast High School varsity soccer team and works as a camp attendant at West Branch State Park from the last week of April to the third week in October. On occasion, he also delivers magazines with his father.

Shawn said he doesn’t allow his work to affect his flight training.

“I let it affect my grades more than flying,” he said. “I should have spent more time studying and less time trying to fly. If you look at my transcript, my fall grades are low, but my spring grades are high.”

Shawn estimates he has five to six weeks of the helicopter course remaining before he earns his commercial rating. At that point, he can fly for hire.

Perhaps he will receive that compensation from his dad, who has been asking for a ride in a plane or helicopter since Shawn obtained his licenses.

Although Michael was scared when Shawn was flying at 16, he would still like to go for another ride.

“When he started out it was kind of scary,” Michael said. “Kind of like when your kid first drives a car. Well, this is a little scarier, but after seeing him and how well he does and everything, I think it’s really great that he can do all these things most people only dream about.”

Contact administration reporter Kristyn Soltis at [email protected].