By Katherine S. Stafford
Amelia Earhart said, “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” In that spirit, I am doing it: Momma is learning to fly.
Like so many aspiring and established pilots before me, I have always been drawn to aviation.
As a young girl I grew up under the flight pattern of San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Then and now I get butterflies of excitement when headed to the airport — any airport. The smell of jet fuel sets off an endorphin rush. I have experienced the urge to run up to a plane — a Cessna 182 in hangar — and hug it, for no other reason than it had a prop, two wings, and a tail.
After turning 40 I realized I could be halfway through my life. I asked myself, then a nurse coordinating a successful seniors outreach program, what I would regret having not done before my final departure. Learning to fly a plane was at the top of the list.
Here in the pages of General Aviation News, airline captain and airshow star, John Klatt, spoke to “all aviation enthusiasts” when he said, “If people are on the fence, I would encourage them to hop off the fence and drive down to the local airport…” I did just this.
I headed to Gansner-Quincy Airfield (2O1), the local airfield three minutes from my house in the Lost Sierras of Northern California and chatted up the owner of Sugarpine Aviators, Johnny Moore. A pilot with nearly 30,000 hours of flight time, Johnny has been an Alaskan bush pilot, a crop duster, a fire bomber, an A&P mechanic, and a flight and ground instructor. Lucky for me his passion is to introduce enthusiastic beginners like myself to flying.
He agreed to take me on in his 1950 Luscombe 8F. You read that right. My flight training begins in a taildragger. I figured since I learned to drive a stick shift in the hills of San Francisco, it fits that I learn to fly a taildragger in the mountains.
Just before getting started with my flight training I got the perfect fortune in my Chinese takeout: “Act boldly and unseen forces will come to your aid.”
“Unseen forces” in this scenario are (obviously) lift, along with a good dose of belief, determination, and planning from me and my family. More to the point, taking off in an airplane in the left seat for the first time, as a 42-year-old mother of two in the midst of a career shift, is a bold act.
I left my nursing position and had begun to write a book and freelance articles. Once I gave myself permission to do those things, finding a way to fly soon followed.
It is said that to be truly brave one must face fear. Besides mortal fear and the fear of being broke, one of my hurdles was seeing myself in the pilot’s seat. In my 20s I flew with a female aerobatic pilot. Though I loved the thrill of our steep turns and I appreciated flying with a woman pilot, that wasn’t enough to change my image of “pilot.”
That happened one evening, just months ago, as I read stories about women who had won Women in Aviation International (WAI) scholarships. The aspiring and accomplished pilots profiled represented every age and life experience. And every pilot was a woman.
Gaining courage, I registered for the 2019 WAI conference in Long Beach, California. Whether the conference would lead directly to becoming a pilot, I knew inspiration would be guaranteed.
Among the keynote speakers was Tammie Jo Shults, the Southwest Airlines captain and former Navy jet fighter pilot who landed her plane safely after an engine failure just after takeoff.
Speaking of the calm and caring found in the passengers and crew after their imperiled flight landed safely, Shults noted, “Hope didn’t change the circumstances, but it changed us.”
Attending the conference gave me hope, not only that I could be a pilot if I chose to, but that more and more women can and will feel this way now and in the future.
At the WAI conference I met women just coming to flying and those who had flown for decades. Everyone from student pilots to seasoned cargo, airline, and business pilots were eager to talk with me about their experience in aviation. Most importantly I saw community happening —connecting, idea-exchanging, understanding, encouraging.
I was welcomed. I was hooked. I went to every session, briefing, and speaker I could fit in a nine-hour day for three days. I dove into the eight rows of booths in the exhibit all. When I finally headed home after three days at the conference I was exhausted and fulfilled.
“Walk the path once you choose it,” said Dr. Ellen Stefan, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Director and former Chief Scientist at NASA, in her conference address. So I did. I took my first flight lesson just days after returning from the conference.
Just taxiing the Luscombe was a challenge, with its heel brake system and direction coming from the tail. My instructor likened it to tightrope walking, while I felt like I was learning how to ride a bike all over again.
Flying was thrilling, and awkward, as my left foot was heavy on the rudder and my left hand clumsy with its pressure. I flew around (mostly) with one wing higher than the other as I hear most new flight students do.
Happily, when my instructor asked me to do a 180° turn, I had the presence of mind to look behind at the view at my tail, then got there. In the early days miracles are small.
I have flown twice since and started online ground school. I have been challenged and interested every minute. Now I realize that the larger miracle will be me finding the path of balancing the intensity of flight training with my family life and my and my husband’s careers.
This is the midlife career shift dilemma in a nutshell. I have not cracked it. For the near-term future I have had to put flying on hold while I continue ground school as I can.
Though not flying currently, I think about flying every day. But the way I think of it has changed. Now, when I hear an airplane’s drone, instead of looking to the sky and picturing someone else in the pilot seat, I picture myself.
As the saying goes, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”
I smile when my feet want to be proactive on the rudder pedals in the middle of the night. I smile when I think of the amazing women I met at the WAI conference. Picturing them, I hold hope that I will be a pilot one day. Momma’s gonna learn how to fly.