By J. DOUGLAS HINTON
While there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of grandmothers flying through the ether in America, how many would you guess took up flight instruction at the age of 55?
Meet Leah Dunn of Panama City, Florida, a tall, slim, very personable blonde I met at SunState Aviation on the Kissimmee Gateway Airport (ISM).
She’s also known to close friends by her maiden name of “Ott” in deference to her father, who was an army general. Mother of three sons — including two who are pilots — and two grandsons, she came to the game somewhat late in life. Why bother?
“I said to myself one day, ‘Why sit on the couch in front of the TV with a bag of chips and watch somebody else having a great adventure?’” she said. “I knew very little about aviation, but the idea of learning to fly held great appeal for me. I had heard that about 70% of women drop out before getting their license, probably for reasons of raising a family, finding the time, a job, cost of training, whatever. But the challenge for me was irresistible — and I always finish what I start!”
That Dunn is a go-getter is beyond question. In 1974 she started a women’s rugby football team at the University of Oklahoma, playing with a men’s team first to learn the game. The women’s team has gone on to national prominence and Dunn was recently inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame. She is now active as a fundraiser for the Science and Discovery Museum in Panama City and, along with others, plans to donate an interactive aviation exhibit in the near future.
“You know kids these days,” she offered. “They’re bored stiff with inanimate objects. But with interactive computers, they can fly, crash and be happy!”
I asked her about any age-related problems she may have had getting her private pilot license. “Well, it took me a couple of years, considering family matters, other activities and I was a klutz in ground school,” she recalled. “So I went out and bought a bunch of books on the subject, studied hard and got 100% on my exam. That was in 2010 when I was 55 and now I’m pushing 60. Since then, I’ve made my seaplane rating and instrument and taildragger ratings come next.”
Dunn teamed with Joan Evert to compete in last year’s Air Race Classic, the all-female cross-country race held every year. SunState Aviation donated the 2008 Cessna 172 the team flew.
“Of all the flight schools I’ve trained with they are the best,” she said. “Their aircraft are late model, squeaky clean, well maintained, most have glass cockpits and their instructors are top drawer. You can’t do better.”
Founded at ISM in 2002, SunState Aviation survived Hurricane Charlie in 2004, moved across the field to restart its operations and now has a huge hangar/maintenance facility/offices and coffee shop under construction. They average 20-30 students a week, have 16 instructors, and offer courses from private pilot to ATP plus helicopter training.
A member of the 99s, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Women in Aviation and the Experimental Aircraft Association, Dunn recently sold her Mooney Acclaim and is in the market for a Cessna 182. “It’s roomier and has more performance,” she said. “But we’re not in any hurry.”
Dunn hopes that her success in the air will inspire other women — of all ages — to take up the challenge.
“I do have one request of the men who may be reading this article,” she said. “If you haven’t done it yet, please, oh please, take your wife or girlfriend up for a flight or share this article with them. Let them be exposed to the spark that starts the fire!”