High Ambition: Duluth Flight Instructor Passes On Her Love of the Sky

Lis Hendrickson fastens an insulating blanket over the nose of a Cirrus SR22 after a recent flight. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com
By Melinda Lavine, Duluth News Tribune

Lis Hendrickson has two hangars and an airstrip at her home.

She also has three planes: a Cessna 170, a Cessna 120 and a Piper Super Cub. (The latter has floats and skis on the wheels right now, she said.)

Hendrickson is chief flight instructor and operations director of Fly Duluth / Duluth Flying Club, a privately owned pilot training center. Before that, she wore other hats: chief flight instructor at Lake Superior College, a corporate pilot for Cirrus, flight instructor at Cloquet Airport.

When she’s not teaching, she’s working with the Federal Aviation Administration, writing flight lessons, ensuring their planes are up on their maintenance and communicating with students.

And she tries to fly as often as possible — but it wasn’t always like that.

“I started learning how to fly when I was 30,” said the 60-year-old. Before that, Hendrickson was in restaurant management. When her daughter was old enough, she decided to chase her childhood dream.

She earned her pilot license in three months, she said, explaining, “A year is a normal time span.”

Christy Newcomb (left) visits with flight instructor Lis Hendrickson at Monaco Air recently before Hendrickson took two passengers for a flight. Newcomb worked with Hendrickson to earn her private pilot license. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Flying is not just manipulating the controls. Ground training covers the basic systems in an airplane; you also have to learn how to fly in different weather patterns, the language of the airports and how to navigate with GPS.

“When I first started, I couldn’t do anything but fly the airplane,” she said. Your brain is so full of information, it’s tough to multitask, and getting comfortable communicating with air traffic controllers takes a while. She recalled a time her flight instructor told her to announce she was making a maneuver into the headset. “I look over at him and I say, ‘I can’t, I’m turning,'” she said with a laugh.

Lis Hendrickson walks around a Cirrus SR22 after a recent flight. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Hendrickson uses her experiences with her students and the instructors she oversees, and she models her teaching style after Bill Amorde at the Superior Airport.

“He’s still the person that I look up to and try to emulate,” she said. He’s a designated pilot examiner, he has so much experience in many different kinds of airplanes, and he’ll give real-world experience that nurtures confidence.

“When I’m with a student or we’re on a stage check, they’ll look at me and they’ll say, ‘Is this right?’ And instead of answering their direct question, what I will say is, ‘Does this sound right to you? Do you think that you’re ready to take off?'” This teaches them how to be a pilot in command, and that calm step-by-step thought process will save your life, she said.

Lis Hendrickson checks a sample of gasoline from a Cirrus SR22 to ensure that it’s clear of water. The precaution is part of a preflight inspection. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

A large motivator to teach is to give back to aviation, she said, and a bonus is watching a person move from zero hours in the sky to hitting what she calls an epiphany about flying. “It feeds my soul,” she said.

Christy Newcomb is a customer service representative at Monaco Air Duluth, where she works with Hendrickson. Since childhood, Newcomb was drawn to flying. “This isn’t something I wanted to do for a career. It’s something just for me,” she said by email.

Newcomb earned a private pilot license with Hendrickson as her ground school and flight instructor. During her first solo flight, the two were practicing landings, when Hendrickson told Newcomb to pull in to a near control tower base.

“She rummaged around in the back seat of the aircraft, then opened the door (with the aircraft still running) hopped out and said, ‘Go do three more.’ She closed the door and walked away.

“It’s in that moment you wonder if you’re truly capable of doing these landings on your own. After you make those landings … it’s a huge boost to your self-esteem.”

With a clipboard on a leg, Lis Hendrickson pilots a Cirrus SR22 with the plane’s sidestick controller. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

Melissa Lange has known Hendrickson since she was a flight instructor at Lake Superior College. Today, with Hendrickson as her boss, Lange also works as an instructor, and the two share the same passion for teaching.

Guiding someone who has never been in or flown a plane to their first solo flight, that’s at the heart of what Lange does, she said. “From takeoff to landing, it’s exciting,” she said.

And for Hendrickson, flight instruction is a family affair.

Nils Grover

It was her father, Nils Grover, who instilled a love of flying in her. As a kid, he’d take her to the Duluth or Superior airport, where they’d watch the planes. Decades later, Hendrickson became his teacher. “He was proud to tell everybody that ‘My daughter is my flight instructor.'”

Teaching her father was easy; he learned quickly because he loved it. He also did a lot of self-study and practicing on flight simulators.

“We think alike,” Hendrickson said. “We were so close that we were able to finish each other’s sentences, and we were thinking the same ways.”

When he got sick last year, Hendrickson said she had to quit work completely to take care of him. “In one month, he was gone,” she said. But the family connection lives on for Hendrickson, who flies to visit her daughter and two grandchildren in Eau Claire, sometimes only for a lunch. (The flight is 40 minutes.) She also started to teach her granddaughter the aircraft ropes when she was 6.

Being in the business for this long, Hendrickson has seen many changes in plane navigation and autopilot capabilities.

“What hasn’t changed is … people are not expecting a woman pilot,” she said. “I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s; it just doesn’t bother me.”

Flight instructor Lis Hendrickson pilots a Cirrus SR22 over Lake Superior recently. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

One challenge in the field is that fewer people are flying. Earning a pilot certificate takes a lot of commitment, time, effort and money, she said. “I think that’s why people think flying is for rich people. It’s not … it’s $200 an hour. If that’s all you do, it’s fine. If you want to go hunting, fishing, snowmobiling or sailing, of course, you can’t do it.”

Flying brings a new outlook, she said.

“Other little things down on the ground, don’t matter because you’re up in the air, and you could make a life-or-death decision. It’s a huge, life-changing perspective,” she said.

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