This is one of a continuing series of profiles featuring members of the Texas Aviation Advisory Committee. The six members are appointed by the Texas Transportation Commission for six-year terms and assist the Texas Department of Transportation with its aviation development programs. Committee members also work with the legislature on various aviation issues. Members must have at least five years of experience in the field of aviation and a strong interest in supporting Texas’ general aviation program.
Everyone has a passion for something, especially, perhaps, in the Texas Panhandle. Mike Schnell of Spearman, Texas —the newest member of the TxDOT Aviation Advisory Committee —has three. In no particular order, the things that motivate Schnell include flying, public service and making sure we never forget the sacrifices that were made by our war heroes.
Those first two passions are engrained in who he is. As chairman and CEO of First State Bank of Spearman, Schnell often flies to other parts of the state for business. It makes sense, considering he can be in just about any Texas city in 90 minutes, thanks to his Cessna Conquest. His public service includes 25 years on the Spearman Airport Board and his contributions as a Spearman City Councilmember.
But that third passion — recognizing our war heroes — has become a lot more personal.
“When I was off at college in 1973, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, my mom called and told me that our family friend had been shot down and was missing in action,” Schnell recalls. “It’s been over 40 years ago, but I’ve always remembered Sam Cornelius’ sacrifice.”
Several years ago, Schnell figured out a way to make sure the people of Spearman could honor Cornelius. With Spearman City Council approval, Schnell began the Federal Aviation Administration paperwork to have the municipal airport renamed. In 2009, the Spearman Airport was officially changed to Major Samuel B. Cornelius Field.
“Sam was a local hero. He was a star Spearman High School football player who earned a scholarship to Texas Tech. He was recruited by the pros, but instead joined the Air Force and became a pilot,” Schnell says. “In his third tour of duty, he was shot down in his F-4 Phantom Jet over Cambodia after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. His remains have never been recovered. We lost a great one. And he was only 30.”
Shortly after the airport was renamed, a local boy — as part of his Eagle Scout project – raised enough money to build a granite monument in honor of Cornelius.
“With community support, we made sure Spearman will always remember,” Schnell says. “I would urge other communities across Texas to do what we did. There are so many local heroes out there that time has forgotten.”
Wingtips: What was it about aviation that interested you?
Schnell: Growing up in the late 50’s and early 60’s, I was always impressed with the stories of bravery exhibited by our airmen in World War II. Not just the pilots but the aircrews also. I was fascinated with all of the WWII aircraft, especially the fighters. I suppose it was the dream of flying a fighter someday that always kept me interested in aviation. I did finally own a 1942 AT-6D; not a fighter but the next best thing.
Wingtips: What was your motivation in accepting the appointment on the Texas Aviation Advisory Commission?
Schnell: To assist, however possible, in the promotion and advancement of general aviation in Texas, whether on a local level or through my elected officials.
Wingtips: Even though you are new to the advisory committee, are there any specific goals you would like to accomplish?
Schnell: I believe Dave Fulton and his staff at TxDOT Aviation have done an amazing job of rehabilitating our Texas airports to the point of being the envy of many states. That being said, I do believe that many veteran pilots or crew could be honored by their communities by renaming a local airport in their memory. Lest we forget their sacrifice.
Wingtips: What are the biggest challenges for general aviation (GA)?
Schnell: I believe that one of the biggest challenges facing GA today is the stigma placed on it by many of our elected federal officials. When corporate aviation departments began shutting down after the automaker debacle, tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs nationwide. Corporate aviation should be viewed as the job creator it is rather than the luxury many people believe it to be. Also, the FAA certification process for aircraft and more especially avionics and powerplants, has hampered modernization of our GA fleet with the exception of “experimental” aircraft which seem to be on the cutting edge of technology, and at a more affordable price.
Wingtips: What would you like the public to know about general aviation in Texas and why non-pilots should care about it?
Schnell: As most successful business people know, time really is money. With Texas being the 2nd largest state and having only 27 airports served by scheduled air service (their schedule not yours), GA becomes even more necessary to any growing community. A quality airport is a sign of a progressive and forward thinking community.