KEARNEY — Several years ago, as Terry Gibbs and his daughter Dana were waiting at Omaha’s Eppley Field to board a flight to Japan, the pilot strolled up to the gate.
Gibbs did a double-take.
That pilot was one of the thousands of students Gibbs had taught to fly at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
“To know I had a piece of that was incredibly gratifying,” he said.
Gibbs’ 27 years as a leader in UNK’s aviation program will be recognized Thursday evening when he is inducted into the Nebraska Aviation Hall of Fame at the Kearney Holiday Inn. He will join four other inductees at the event, which is part of the Nebraska Aviation Council’s Nebraska Aviation Symposium through Saturday.
Gibbs, who not only taught students to fly, also was director of the department for 18 years. Three people soon will handle the responsibilities that, until a year ago, Gibbs handled himself.
Gibbs started at UNK in August 1992 as the coordinator of aviation education. For his first nine years, he managed the flight instructors.
In August 2001, he was promoted to director (what he jokingly calls “the director of everything”) of the University of Nebraska Aviation Program. He replaced Larry Carstenson, who took another position at UNK. In 1995, when Vietnam veteran Elton Weston retired as the FAA-designated pilot examiner, Gibbs took on those duties, too.
“The FAA designated me to do flight tests for anyone who wanted to learn to fly,” Gibbs said. He estimates that he gave nearly 1,000 such tests, called check rides.
Gibbs has been fascinated with aviation ever since childhood.
As a small boy growing up outside Orchard, he would watch a local ag pilot spray his father’s fields. When that pilot gave the Gibbs family a ride in his plane, it stirred something inside him.
Then there were family vacations.
No matter where the family went — always by car — they watched commercial planes from the observation decks at major airports. “Dad loved to do this. This was back in the ’60s, and we’d end up at the Denver airport or the one in L.A. That’s where my flying bug started, but I didn’t have the money to act on it,” he said.
In 1979, Gibbs earned a degree in electrical engineering at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and got a job doing defense-related work in Scottsdale, Ariz. In his spare time, he learned to fly. “I did it for grins and giggles, I like to say,” he said.
In 1981, he earned his pilot’s certificate. Three years later, he received a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Arizona State University and earned his additional pilot’s certificate and became a certified flight instructor. “I enjoyed it. I figured that since I’d continue to fly, I might as well get more licenses & ratings,” he said
As he worked at Motorola’s Government Electronics Group, his avocation grew. A coworker owned the small airport business where Gibbs learned to fly, and Gibbs helped him maintain planes and more. Eventually, the two left Motorola to devote their time to Deer Valley Aviation, which grew from three to 13 planes. Gibbs acquired his aircraft mechanic and airline transport pilot certificates. By 1986, the company had 13 airplanes, and Gibbs and his wife Deb bought half the business. His partner handled marketing and planning while Gibbs ran the day-to-day operations.
“Basically, it was the two of us, but we had valuable help from our spouses and a lot of good people,” he said.
Soon, the fleet had 72 aircraft and 130 employees. Deer Valley Aviation offered pilot training for commercial airlines and conducted charter flights across North and Central America.
“We did flight training work for airlines throughout the world. We flew charter flights all over the U.S. We were one of the few that flew charters in and out of Mexico multiple times a week. We were in Mexico so much I had to get a work permit to fly there,” he said.
In 1992, he and Deb adopted a baby from Korea. The tiny boy was to arrive in March, but on Jan. 9, with just one day’s notice, their son arrived at the Phoenix airport, in the arms of an adoption agency staff member.
They had talked about moving back to Nebraska to be closer to family. Gibbs had picked up an Omaha World-Herald when he was in Nebraska for Christmas, but he’d been too busy to read it. Now, as he and Deb adjusted to their new roles as parents, Gibbs read that newspaper and saw an ad for the aviation position at UNK.
He got the job.
He, Deb and Daniel moved to Kearney and stayed. Gibbs also spent 16 years as a pilot and director of training for Midway Aviation, which is based at the Kearney Regional Airport. In 1995, he became a designated pilot examiner, one of just three in Nebraska and one of 600 worldwide.
In early 2019, Gibbs retired as the director of the University of Nebraska Aviation Program, and is now a senior lecturer in the Industrial Technology Department, teaching electricity and electronics. “I knew I would still be here to advise whoever they chose to run the program, so I’m not really retired,”
Right now, UNK’s aviation program has 70 students in its two branches, flight training and the other aviation management. It’s one of about 100 such programs across the country, up from about 60 in past decades. Domestic pilot programs were declining because of low starting salaries, he said, but when the pilot shortage hit, salaries began to climb, and pilots are returning to the industry.
“Boeing estimates that in North America and the Asia-Pacific region more than 200,000 pilots will be needed in the next 20 years,” he said.
He remains modest about Thursday’s aviation hall of fame induction. He will join 120 others who are honored in the hall, including Clyde and Joan Mickelson of Kearney, retired owners of Air Midway, who were inducted last year.
“I know I’ve done good work. It’s been incredibly meaningful work,” Gibbs said. “I appreciate the honor, but I’m not certain I’m worthy of it. I’ve worked with a lot of really good people here at UNK, and with the FAA.”