The spark that causes otherwise ordinary people to pursue a pilot certificate is as unique as the individuals who feel it. Once that impulse is felt, the path we pursue to get the training and experience needed to pass the FAA’s tests is varied, too.
That is certainly the case for Jill Manka, a central Florida woman who put her flight instruction on hold, bought a project airplane, and has spent the past two years restoring it. She’s intent on flying, but she’s decided to fly in an airplane she knows inside and out — and it’s hard to blame her.
Manka’s previous experience with flight was mostly business oriented, and not particularly inspirational. Her work as a representative for a convention and visitor’s bureau had her traveling often, but without much enjoyment.
“I was very jaded by the commercial experience,” she said.
Based on her earlier flights, Manka didn’t expect much when a new boyfriend invited her for a flight in his Stearman.
“I thought it was going to be cool,” she acknowledges. “But I had no idea how much it would really inspire me.”
Maybe it was the open cockpit or maybe it was the budding romance. Whatever the case, by the time the wheels touched down on the grass strip back home, Manka’s idea of what aviation was all about had shifted considerably.
That one flight changed everything. In fact, her first comment when she got back on the ground was, “Can we do that again? I liked it.”
As she flew more, her attraction to flight continued to grow. She discovered that every flight was decidedly different. Even when she flew the same aircraft over the same route with the same flight instructor, she encountered challenges to each flight that were unique.
Her instructional flights began at the storied Bartow Municipal Airport. Formerly known as Bartow Air Base, the original airport was built in the 1930s. The onset of World War II led to a significant expansion that allowed the field to become a Fighter Replacement Training Station. P-51 Mustangs filled the ramps and the air then, as did P-39 Aircobras. By the time Manka began her training, the venerable Cessna 172 was the trainer of choice, and her training went well enough that she soloed there.
All student pilots hit a plateau at some point. They may put in the effort, but for some reason they can’t seem to make progress. This is often limited to a single maneuver or task, and it is almost always a temporary glitch in the student’s thought processes that leads to the plateau. In Manka’s case, she knew what her plateau was and she knew how to solve it.
“I just never felt 100% comfortable in a nosewheel,” she admits. She attributes her discomfort to the fact that so much of her fun flying had been in taildraggers. “I learned a lot from the 172, and I’m so glad I had the experience in that aircraft, but for me, I really wanted to get back into a tailwheel, and I wanted to finish my license in a tailwheel airplane.”
With her course set, and her heart intent on not only completing her pilot license, but also completing it in style, the search was on.
Manka and her boyfriend began searching through classified ads, reaching out to friends, and considering the multitude of tube and fabric airplane projects hidden away in hangars and barns all across the country. She settled on the idea of restoring an Aeronca Champ after talking to numerous pilots who raved about their early flying years in what has often been described as an outstanding trainer and personal aircraft. Know for being docile, fun, and cost-effective, the Champ moved to the top of Manka’s list and stayed there.
After considerable searching, the perfect project was located, purchased, and moved to a hangar in central Florida. Manka’s boyfriend, the man who got her interested in aviation in the first place, is an Airframe and Powerplant mechanic. That happy coincidence meant that Manka didn’t just have to write checks to fund the restoration and stand back. She got to roll up her sleeves, dig in, and truly learn about the inner workings of her airplane.
“I’ve always been a, ‘get your hands dirty’ kind of girl,” Manka says proudly.
Getting dirty is exactly what she has been doing for the past two years. With oversight and guidance from her in-house A&P, she has stripped the fuselage, torn apart the wings, examined the engine, and begun the process of putting it all back together again. Overall, it’s slow but satisfying work. Even with much left to do, the completion of the project is virtually assured. Manka’s excited, motivated, and knows with certainty that she’s earned a far greater understanding of what makes her airplane work than most student pilots.
The work continues. With a covered fuselage, seats installed, a spare but functional instrument panel and the airplane sitting on its wheels again, this project is starting to really look like something. One wing sits on sawhorses, rebuilt and ready for covering. Its mate hangs on the wall in pieces. It’s unrecognizable to anyone who doesn’t have an intimate knowledge of what goes into building a wing. Manka knows, and her dream of flying her own airplane, a fully restored Aeronca Champ, is closer with every day she spends in the hangar.
But until that day comes, she’ll continue to fly from the front seat of the Stearman now and then, she’ll put in her time rebuilding that second wing, and she’ll maintain a well-earned sense of accomplishment that will last a lifetime.