'Aviation Father' Took Young Pilot Under His Wing
They both loved to fly.
Both were addicted to the sound of a prop being started; to that moment when the wheels left the ground and it was just them, the aircraft and the sky.
One had well-developed wings tempered by years of experience; the other was confident in his young skills and ready for further development.
The Cessna crash a week ago yesterday near the Beach Lake Road not only claimed the lives of two in the local aviation community; it also zapped the transfer of precious knowledge and flight safety training via one from the older generation of Alaska aviators to one representing the next upcoming generation.
Ended are two legacies: One deep and lengthy; another just developing but ripe with potential.
Gone due to the crash are George Kobelnyk, 64, and Christian Bohrer, 20.
They represent more than two lives snatched away by circumstances crash investigators have yet to pinpoint. Their loss leaves a gaping hole in the heart of the Birchwood Airport community and creates the abrupt, tragic end to a mentor/mentee relationship rarely found.
“George was like an aviation father to Christian,” Mark Bohrer, Christian’s father said in a phone interview the morning of April 22.
Kobelnyk had a resume young aviators dream of achieving their careers: U.S. Army flight, ground and maintenance training, plenty of time in the seat as a private pilot, a lengthy stint as a National Transportation Board Safety crash scene investigator, a manager at the Federal Aviation Administration and an abiding, driving desire to see constant improvement in safety standards within the aviation industry. He looked for a young person to whom he could pour his experience and knowledge.
He found it in Bohrer – an ambitious and eager, yet polite 2014 graduate from Chugiak High School. The younger aviator gladly following in Kobelnyk’s shadow like a sponge in water absorbing the wealth of mastery and skills the elder aviation statesman shared.
Bohrer’s career was certainly zooming along on a steep trajectory within the local aviation community. He began taking flight lessons during his junior year of high school and earned his private pilot’s license at the end of May 2014 just shortly after graduating high school. A year later, Bohrer added his commercial license and by Sept. 2015 – just 18 very short months after getting his first licensure – Bohrer qualified for his flight instruction license.
“George gave Christian quite a few of his trainings and ratings and check rides,” Susan Kobelnyk said in an evening phone interview April 21 from the family’s Chugiak home. “Boy Wonder was his nickname between George and I. That is how he introduced me to Christian.”
The nickname was a bit of a mystery to young Bohrer, who told his parents of the moniker Kobelnyk had given him.
“He told his mother, ‘Mom, George calls me Boy Wonder. I don’t know what that means, but I guess it is a compliment,’” Mark said.
Indeed it was.
Susan said her husband was “amazed” at what a fast-forward thinker and fast learner Christian was.
“George said Christian was a very capable pilot and he thought a lot of him,” Susan said. “He wanted to help him reach his dreams.”
The pair – separated by decades in age but close and well-connected contemporaries around aircraft – flew together “a lot,” Susan said. She has the records, but the night after an afternoon visit to the scene where her husband’s Cessna 172P crashed was not the time for her to count numbers.
Yet there was a momentary lightness in her otherwise weary, grief-stricken voice as she talked about the delight George took in working with Christian.
“He saw the future of Alaska aviation in Christian,” she said.
Thus, that morning flight out of the Birchwood Airport with two passengers in the back and Bohrer in the co-pilot’s seat was considered a routine event. It was supposed to be a short aerial survey flight.
At 9:05 a.m., the flight ended far too quickly with the Cessna crashing through the heavily-wooded birch and spruce trees on the dog mushing trails of the Beach Lake Recreation Area between the Beach Lake Road and the David Blackburn Road leading to the Birchwood Camp.
Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board spent most of Wednesday, April 20, and Thursday, April 21, at the crash scene. Debris and the broken up plane were removed around noon on Thursday morning and taken to a secure location in the Valley for further investigation.
Susan knew what that meant.
In her husband’s many years working with the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration, Susan accompanied him to many crash scenes. Sometimes knowledge isn’t comforting.
As she waits along with the extended family – biological and those within the aviation community – for investigators to determine what went wrong Wednesday morning, she reflects on her husband’s decade’s long career that began with the U.S. Army, saw stints in private aviation and work within government agencies and his goals for training the next generation of pilots.
“George learned about safety and flying in the military and he never forgot what he learned,” Susan said. “He was very specific and had high standards. He wanted the industry to get back to that and he was passing that on to Christian and to any others who would listen.”
Apparently, Christian was listening and had gained Kobelnyk’s respect and trust.
Kobelnyk, owner of Alaska Aviation Adventures, had hired Bohrer to fly for his company’s sight-seeing adventures and provide flight instruction. Three students were ready to go starting this week.
Bohrer’s quick ascent within the local aviation industry was no surprise to his high school teachers. They remember him as someone who knew his future was certainly “up in the air,” but in a good way.
“It was well known among friends and staff here at CHS that Christian had a passion for flying and pursuing a career in aviation,” Stephanie Thornton, a teacher in the school’s World Discovery Seminar, said. Bohrer was one of her students in the specialized program aimed at creating a tight-knit academic community within the school focused on the use of classic historical and literary documents. “He loved having the opportunity to share his love of aviation with other students whether in conversation or the chance to take someone up in a plane.”
Fortunately, one of those “someone’s” was his mother, Patrice.
She admits she had reservations – after all, it wasn’t like she could just tell her son to pull over and let her take over the wheel like in a car. Still, she knew flying was his passion and despite her concerns, she wanted to share that with her son.
“It was bizarre,” she said. “I mean, here I am, flying with this kid.”
It is a moment she now treasures as she too reflects on what her son meant to Alaska aviation and ponders what more his relationship with Kobelnyk could have yielded.
“Christian had such respect for George and his knowledge. They really clicked,” Patrice said. “He felt very fortunate to have George in his life. We feel tremendously blessed that this man with so much knowledge chose to take our son under his wing.”
Mark echoes much of the same.
“There wasn’t a conversation about flying with Christian that did include something like, ‘and George did this, and George said this, and George told me this and George said to do it this way,’” he said. “George invested in Christian. I am so thankful.”
Unfortunately, Christian’s parents never met the man who for the past year has spent countless time in the hangar, on the tarmac and in the pilot’s seat to the left of their son in the co-pilot seat.
They’d been meaning to. They had tried a few times.
Mark went with Christian to the hangar on and off to check security of the airplane with the Alaska Star Flying Club that Christian belonged to and that Kobelnyk mentored. But each time, Mark just missed George. And to some extent, Mark and Patrice knew their son was spreading his adult wings and they didn’t want to helicopter parent him. Thus, that meet and greet never came to be.
“It saddens me having not met him,” Mark said. “Patrice and I hope to connect with his family and get to know them.”
He wants to know about the man that saw his son’s potential.
“They were buddies. My son would come home and talk endlessly about George,” Mark said. “At the time, I did not understand the full gravity of the relationship between the two and the transfer of information and knowledge that was transpiring. But it was huge.”
For now, the Bohrer family says they take comfort in the fact that Christian died doing what he loved and that he was with his mentor, George, when that occurred. For the Kobelnyk family, the irony surrounding George’s death looms far too large. The question of how their husband, father and grandfather – a man who dedicated so much of his professional life to air safety – could die in such a horrific crash is one they’d like answered. The notion that “he died doing what he loved,” is not something they accept or find any solace contemplating.
“Dad thought that was ‘expletive’,” Tyler Kobelnyk, George’s youngest son, told The Star.
It was because of his years as an NTSB investigator, George saw far too many ugly scenes. “He had to talk to far too many widows,” Susan said.
For now both families cherish two facts: Each time George sat in the pilot’s seat, years of experience came along for the ride. Each time Christian sat in the co-pilot’s seat, it barely contained his enormous passion and willingness to learn.
Author’s note: On behalf of the Armstrong family and the Chugiak-Eagle River Star, we extend our deepest and sincere sympathies regarding the loss of these two aviators. Blue skies and tailwinds always.
UPDATED: MONDAY, APRIL 25, 2016, 12:33 P.M.