Liz Utzig Wallace came from a family of aviation enthusiasts. Her father, Clarence, was a wing-walker in the Golden Age of Aviation. Her mother, Thelma, took flying lessons when it was rare for women to even step onto airport grounds.
So it was no surprise that in 1980 Liz got her private pilot certificate.
“I’d trade babysitting for rides in an Aeronca Champ,” she recalls of her early days of flight.
She never owned a plane, figuring that she wasn’t flying enough to justify the expense. But she’d rent planes and travel from her home in Newberg, Oregon, to California to visit family. She recalls a great cross-country trip she took with her mother right after she got her certificate, flying across the midwest visiting family.
One of her favorite flying pastimes was giving Young Eagles flights to kids, introducing them to the world of aviation. She even bought a Europa kit and began building the plane on her deck.
So it was with a heavy heart that she made the decision in 2016 to ground herself.
It happened after she suffered an episode of transient global amnesia.
According to the Mayo Clinic, during an episode of transient global amnesia your recall of recent events “simply vanishes,” so you can’t remember where you are or how you got there.
“You do remember who you are and you recognize the people you know well,” the clinic describes on its website. “Episodes of transient global amnesia always improve gradually over a few hours. Transient global amnesia isn’t serious, but it can still be frightening.”
And it was for Liz. She was riding her bike to the vet to pick up some medication for one of her six dachshunds when it hit her. She didn’t know where she was or what she was doing. She was able to call her husband, who took her to the hospital. During the ride, she asked him over and over, “where are we? what are we doing?” He’d answer, then she immediately would ask him again.
“I couldn’t remember the answer,” she says. “I kept asking the same questions over and over because it just wasn’t sticking in my head.”
The entire day is blank.
“The memories aren’t gone, because the memories weren’t formed. It was like a brain reboot.”
Doctors assured her there was a 90% chance it would never happen again, but that 10% worried her enough to hang up her wings.
“I loved flying Young Eagles, but I couldn’t imagine taking a whole planeload of kids in a Saratoga and then having an episode,” she says. “While I wouldn’t know where I was, I might be able to retain my flying skills, but that wasn’t something I was willing to risk.”
Flying, like driving, she says, is a privilege you earn and with it comes responsibility, not just to her and her passengers, but to others.
“You don’t have the right to take anyone with you,” she says when thinking about the possibility of an accident.
At first, it was difficult to give up flying — and the camaraderie she found at Sportsman Airpark, just down the road from her house. She also was very active in the Oregon Pilots Association and the Experimental Aircraft Association.
These days, her and her husband Frank devote their time to traveling in a motor home with their dogs.
It took a while, but after a few years of being ground bound, she decided to sell the Europa project.
“I was dragging my feet about selling it because I knew that was the final thing to cut the cord,” she said.
She’s at peace with the decision, knowing she’s done the right thing.
But many pilots wouldn’t make the same decision.
She recalls running into a local pilot at a store and him asking why she wasn’t at the airfield any more. She told him about the episode and how she decided to stop flying.
“The FAA doesn’t need to know about that,” he told her. “Just don’t tell them.”
She was flabbergasted.
“I couldn’t even respond,” she said. “I just turned around and walked out of the store.”
How about you? Do you have a personal minimum for continuing to fly? Will you know when it’s time to stop flying?