In this dark winter of our discontent, Summer Olson treasures a feeling that’s all too elusive in the Covid era – total freedom.

The bright, bubbly Bettendorf 26-year-old – with a personality as warm as her name – loves leaving the confines of the ground behind, by taking off in a two-seater Cessna. Even greater than being unchained by the shackles of Earth, Olson and her boyfriend, Kyle Kuehl, are true entrepreneurs, and have combined their talents by starting a new business – Quad Cities Aero, based at the Davenport Municipal Airport.

Summer Olson and her boyfriend, Kyle Kuehl, live in Bettendorf.

She flew on her initial discovery flight (with an instructor) in 2018. While working in the insurance industry, Olson met several clients with planes, and she became curious about how to become a pilot herself.

A native of Stillwater, Minn. (a half hour east of Minneapolis), she majored in molecular biology at University of South Dakota. Right after, Olson got a job with a commercial insurance company in early 2016, and had the Q-C area as her sales region.

“You meet a lot of really cool business owners in the Quad-Cities doing that, and a lot of these business owners have their own airplanes,” Olson said Monday. “It wasn’t even one of my clients; it was one of my prospects, like a Friday afternoon.”

They ended up talking about airplanes for an hour. “I always thought it was fascinating, that people could just go up, have their own airplane and fly,” she said. “It just seems like something that’s so out of the realm of possibility.”

The prospect invited her to go up in his plane, based at Davenport airport, and that’s when she caught the bug. “I wasn’t anticipating changing careers at that point. I thought it would just be something cool to do,” Olson said. “I started my training at the Quad City Flying Eagles in Moline. I got a point where I wanted to make a change career-wise, and I was getting a little homesick.”

She moved back to Minnesota in fall 2019, and saved money for flight training. Olson had to sell her house near the river in Bettendorf, and

Kyle Kuehl and Summer Olson with their 1978 Cessna, “Lil Blue.”

that August, she met her boyfriend – Kyle Kuehl – who owns the Q-C FSBO Homes (For Sale By Owner), to sell her home.

“I didn’t think it was going to turn into something serious, because I’m leaving the Quad-Cities, but I ended up really liking him,” Olson said, noting her house sold in just 10 days.

In Minnesota, she worked for the flight training center where she got her training, at a municipal airport (Lake Elmo Aero, like Davenport’s airport), east of the Twin Cities.

“When I put my mind to something, I just get it done, so I got all my ratings done in a year,” Olson said of different training levels. “I decided halfway through that year, I wanted to end up back in the Quad-Cities, so I decided once I was done with my ratings I was gonna move back down here and do flight training.”

“I really loved the way Lake Elmo Aero did everything, so I just wanted to start my own flight school down here,” she said. Kuehl helped her with getting the business off the ground, and is a true entrepreneur.

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After getting a pilot’s certificate, you still can’t fly under certain conditions, like low visibility and cloud cover, Olson said. “You just have authority to go up in a single-engine airplane when the weather is nice.”

“You can actually solo an airplane pretty quickly, if your instructor deems you can,” she said, noting she went up solo after training 40 hours (the minimum needed to earn a private pilot’s certificate). You can solo before earning that certificate, Olson said.

“You’re subject to restrictions your instructor puts on you,” she said. “You have to get permission before each flight.”

Olson answers basic flight lesson questions in a video on her website.

Once you get the pilot certificate, you can go up pretty much whenever you want without an instructor, and you can take passengers along. She got her certificate in November 2019.

“Working at an airport was awesome,” Olson said. “I was pretty much the front-desk gal. I would do whatever they needed to do – go clean airplanes sometime, get people signed up, get everybody coffee.”

Flying solo for first time

Her first time flying solo (three takeoffs and landings) was both terrifying and freeing.

“The first thing people notice when they go up solo is how quiet it is,” Olson said. “It is absolutely serene, quiet, it’s almost eerie. When you’re up there with your instructor, it’s a constant giving you instructions – watch your altitude, your power settings here. But when you go up alone for the first time, it’s ‘oh my gosh, I am flying this airplane 100 percent me and nobody’s there.”

That first plane was a Cessna 172 (a lot like the plane she later bought, but a bit bigger, with four seats), flying within 1,000 feet of ground elevation.

“Even my discovery flight – the first time I went with an instructor, he let me take off the first time I had a lesson,” Olson said. “It’s incredibly freeing, because you’re defying gravity. It’s mind-blowing. I’ve always been obsessed with it, even when I’m on a commercial aircraft. We’re flying through the air in this hunk of metal – humans aren’t supposed to do that.”

Olson’s website is www.quadcitiesaero.com.

“It’s mind-blowing how the aerodynamics work – just being above the ground like that, and you’re at the controls,” she said. “It’s kind of therapy too, because when you’re up there flying, and you’re at the controls, you don’t think about any other issue or problem you’re having on the ground. All of that goes away and you’re just focused on your task, that you have to fly the airplane.”

While training, there were some rough landings, but as long as you make safe decisions, you gain confidence, Olson said. Everyone is always working toward making a smooth landing, she said.

Earning an instrument rating enables you to fly through clouds, she said, noting that enables a pilot to control the plane only through instruments, without being able to see clearly outside.

“It’s honestly not that bad,” Olson said. “Once you’ve flown through a cloud, you get a lot better understanding. You can learn to manipulate the airplane totally through the controls, but it is a little different when you’re flying through the cloud and you can’t see at all. When you’re in a cloud, you’ll have a little bit of turbulence. That’s air that’s unstable. Once you learn how easy that is to become disoriented, you’re trying to look outside – once you get comfortable that you really have to trust the instruments, it’s not that bad.”

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She thought the instrument rating was easier than getting the pilot’s certificate.

“I graduated with a degree in molecular biology and then I sold insurance, so I knew nothing about engines and how that stuff worked together,.” Olson said. “I was coming from behind, getting a general understanding of the aircraft. Getting a base knowledge of aviation took me a lot longer to get, but once I had that, it was really easy to build on that base knowledge and get an instrument rating.”

That was an additional 50 hours, within about two months. A commercial rating is if you want to get a job flying airplanes, which Olson pursued. “You have to get a mastery of the airplane and perform the maneuvers really precisely, to get your commercial pilot’s certificate,” she said, noting she then got a multi-engine certificate.

Her plane (usually parked at Davenport airport) travels up to about 105 miles an hour. She moved back to the Q-C last summer, and teaches

Summer Olson offering a flying lesson.

with Quad City Flying Eagles.

Olson and Kuehl bought their plane in August, for $34,000 – named “Lil Blue,” it’s a 1978 Cessna 152. It seats two and cruises around 95-100 knots. She says it’s a fantastic first trainer for your private pilot certificate.

Planes have to be inspected every year, and get new engines after each 2,000 hours. Quad Cities Aero is just achieving liftoff (with a new website), and Olson took her first student on a discovery flight in her plane on Monday.

“I’ve always loved the idea of owning my own business, but I’ve always been kind of sheepish about it,” she said. “I’m nervous about taking the risk, and Kyle really helps with that. He’s so entrepreneurial; that’s his whole MO, to help people build up their businesses, and building his own businesses.”

After coronavirus hit last March, the flight training in Minnesota didn’t slow down much, Olson said. “We had to develop procedures for disinfecting the entire inside of the airplanes after each use,” she said. “We didn’t let people come inside the building who weren’t students.”

“There was a noticeable down tick at the beginning, when nobody knew what was going on,” she said. Covid didn’t really affect how students and instructors interacted in the planes. Masks made radio communications a little muffled, Olson said.

“If you’re gonna be in close quarters with somebody like that, it’s really tough – you just have to judge what people’s levels of comfortability are,” Olson said. “If you think they’re not being safe, don’t go flying with them.”

Flying Eagles – which owns and maintains five aircraft kept in hangars on the south side of the Quad City Airport, Moline — have a couple higher-performance planes, that are faster than her Cessna.

The view shortly after takeoff from the Davenport airport.

“If I was just on my own, I would not want to take the risk, and just work for someone else,” Olson said. “Quad City Flying Eagles is fantastic, but they’re a flight club. They just approve instructors to instruct out of their airplane. I want to build my flight school.”

She also had to get additional training to be an instructor, finished in August 2020, in Waterloo, Iowa. “That is a doozy of a check ride,” Olson said. “It should be, if you’re teaching other people how to fly an airplane, which is an incredibly dangerous task.”

“You’re teaching these pretty complicated topics,” she said. “It’s figuring out how to teach these things, and there are so many things they could potentially ask you.”

Olson works with about a half dozen students through the Flying Eagles, primarily in their Cessna 152, the same kind she owns.

“It’s really small and there are weight requirements,” she said. “If you have two fully-sized adults, you can be overweight pretty easily in that airplane.” She couldn’t take someone who weighs more than 200 pounds.

“It’s pretty strict weight requirements; you don’t want to be overweight in an airplane,” Olson said. “Honestly, you’re climb performance could suck so much, it puts you in a dangerous position.”

The Flying Eagles’ 172 Cessna is a larger option, she said. You must be a member of the Flying Eagles club to use their aircraft.

A discovery flight is the first time someone goes up, costing $100 for an hour flight. “You might go up and realize you’re absolutely terrified and you never want to get in a small airplane ever again,” Olson said. “That’s kind of why I call it the discovery flight. That doesn’t happen very often, but it most certainly could.”

“I absolutely love it, because that small airplane is easily manipulated, so it responds when you want it to respond,” she said. “You really just feels you’re in control of that airplane, which I absolutely love.”

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One of her friends gets nervous every time they go flying, getting claustrophobic, Olson said.

“It’s fantastic – there’s nothing better than flying an airplane and I can’t believe I’m going to get paid to do it,” she said. It’s a challenge to start a new venture during the pandemic, but Kuehl has been very supportive.

“He knows the processes and he knows the steps to take; we just kind of take it one step at a time, and we’re gonna figure it out,” Olson said.

Students have great time spreading their wings

Nick Foster of Sherrard, a 2003 Iraq War veteran, served as a crew member on a Chinook helicopter and he’s always wanted to get a private pilot’s license.

A friend of his wife has a Cessna 172 and took him flying last year, and Foster loved it. He got in touch with Flying Eagles president Jim Goetsch, who recommended Olson as the perfect instructor. Foster (a mechanical estimator for Crawford Co.) took his first flight with her in late October and he’s been taking lessons pretty much every Tuesday since.

Seeing the sunset from the sky is one of Nick Foster’s favorite things about flying.

“She’s awesome when it comes to that — being able to relate, being able to communicate,” he said Monday. “To relate and apply known principles to flight is one of her strong suits…We usually try to fly for about an hour, depending on weather and daylight, it works out well with my schedule. Her flexibility is awesome.”

“She’s literally taught me everything I know,” Foster said, noting she’ll do well in her new business. “She’s a very dynamic person, she’s never met a stranger. She’s just good people — one of those people you meet, having them in your orbit, they’re just generally a good person.”

Just learning to fly, the biggest challenge for him was “getting over the uneasy feeling not being in complete control of the aircraft,” Foster said. “The reward is the views — there’s nothing as cool as seeing an awesome sunset. Flights are after work hours.”

Once he gets his certificate, he plans to rent planes for family vacations, including seeing friends in St. Louis and Chicago. “It makes it easier to see them,” Foster said. “We have two young kids, 9 and 6. They went with the fun ride with our friend, and they were all about it. You can fly out when you want, come home when you want. It’ll be a lot more convenient, especially St. Louis trips — instead of driving six hours, we can get there in an hour.”

Mark Kovach, a physician who lives in Moline, also looks forward to that freedom in learning to fly with Olson. He has two sons in college, in Nashville and Pittsburgh, and hopes to eventually to buy his own small plane.

About four months ago, Kovach rose in a two-seater with a friend who flew him to Nashville on a Saturday, and soon after started his lessons

A view from a Flying Eagles plane over downtown Moline in 2019, with I-74 construction underway.

with Olson. He’s not a nervous person and said he wasn’t rattled up in a small two-seater.

“It really increases your ability to go places for a weekend,” Kovach said Monday. “You don’t have to deal with the airport, with the TSA, connecting flights, checking luggage. You take off when you want, but you are more weather dependent. If it’s rainy or not a nice day weather-wise, you just have to sit it out.”

He enjoys the adventure, freedom and excitement of learning to fly himself, also praising Olson.

“She’s great,” Kovach said. “She’s patient; she knows what she’s doing. She’s going to do very well. She has a good, relaxed disposition.”

As a doctor, his schedule is jam-packed and works “too many hours,” he said. Being able to fly to visit friends and family saves precious time.

“In my life, time that I’m not working is extremely valuable,” Kovach said. “If I can travel further in less time, that fits my schedule, it really appeals to me to do that…It’s the freedom and time issue.”

Branching out into other business

Kuehl also owns a few rental properties and they’re also planning to start a new business in the spring called Code Ninjas.

Last week, he and Olson flew (commercial) to Texas to visit the corporate headquarters of Code Ninjas, to see if it was something they wanted to pursue. “We were just so impressed,” she said. In the after-school program, students learn to code and can create their own video games.

“They have a lot of STEM activities and really fun things to get kids’ minds thinking, and set a really good foundation for critical-thinking skills, learning how to think and work through problems,” Olson said. “It’s a fantastic curriculum; I wish there was something like this when I was a kid.”

Code Ninjas (focused mainly on students age 7-14) calls itself the world’s largest and fastest-growing kids coding franchise, with hundreds of locations in the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. The closest to the Q-C is in Peoria.

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“More importantly, they develop just critical thinking skills they can apply later on in life,” Olson said. “The world is gonna look so much different for them than it does for us, and we want to do everything we can to help prepare them for the types of jobs they’re going to be looking for when they’re coming out of college.”

“We like to keep busy,” she said of herself and Kuehl. “We’ve done a few house flips. We kind of always have 500 things going on at once, but that’s the way we like it. I spend way more time flying than really doing anything else.”

Olson has been teaching flying lessons with Quad City Flying Eagles.

Olson and her boyfriend (who has an 8-year-old son) also flew to Florida for vacation last July. They initially were going for a wedding, which was postponed, but her tickets were non-refundable, so they switched them to visit the Florida Keys.

“It was awesome – we pretty much laid on the beach for a few days,” she said. “That was right before I moved back to the Quad-Cities.”

For that flight on Delta, passengers were spaced well apart on the plane, but last week’s trip on American was more crowded, with people seated next to each other, Olson said. “In July, it was totally fine. They have a lot of air filtration systems in those airplanes. As long as you’re not up in somebody else’s business, it’s not that big a deal.”

“It seems like in most places, most people are doing the right thing – wearing their mask and social distancing,” she said. “That’s really enlightening to see. No matter where you go, you’re gonna have people who say, ‘You can’t tell me what to do.’ Avoid them. There are always gonna be people like that. I don’t want this pandemic to stop me from living my life and moving forward.”

Would Olson ever want to be a commercial airline pilot herself?

“Maybe…I don’t know if I really have the desire to do that,” she said. “I really enjoy instructing. Who knows? Maybe down the line I might. Once I decided to quit my job selling insurance and fly, I’ve always been telling myself, if I’m flying, I’m happy. I don’t care what it is that I’m flying. If I’m flying, I’m happy.”

“It’s that sense of freedom I am absolutely in love with, and it doesn’t get old either,” Olson said.

For more information, visit quadcitiesaero.com and qcflyingeagles.com.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.