I was 19, working at a securities firm, and wondering what to do with my life. I felt no driving force urging me towards a particular career. I worked every day and spent less and less time with my dead-end boyfriend. I still lived at home with eight of my ten siblings. My best friend had moved on with my older brother, and I felt driftless.
Driving around in what was then rural southeast Michigan, I would sometimes come across a sign saying, ‘Airplane rides, $5.” (Yes, it was a long time ago.) Whenever I did, I’d stop and go flying just for the fun of it. It was typically a small four-seater, and the pilot, always a guy, would offer to let me ‘fly’ it. One evening I was talking about it at the dinner table while my aunt and uncle were visiting. My uncle mentioned there was a flight school in Traverse City and said there was only ONE girl in the program. ‘You should look into it,’ he said. Never in a million years did I dare to dream that particular dream.
But look into it, I did. I went and toured the school and discovered they offered a two-year flight program that would earn me an Associate of Science degree in aviation. I applied for FAFSA, saved as much as I could, and the following August I moved myself into the dorms at NMC (Northwestern Michigan College) with the unbelievable anticipation of learning to fly!
It took me three years rather than two, but I eventually earned my commercial/instrument ratings through the FAA. Being one of only two girls in the program, it’s no surprise I eventually married a fellow pilot. A seaplane crash the summer before the wedding caused me to become ground shy and put an end to any hopes of my own flying career. But it turned out for the best as we ended up following my then-husband’s very successful career as a 747 captain.
I wouldn’t trade those college memories for anything in the world. I barely remember any of my academic classes I so thoroughly enjoyed flight school. Every aspect of flying both by myself and with others was always a thrill. Circling over the family home watching everyone run outside waving towels and racing to the car to come to the airport and pick me up; flying ‘formation’ with fellow students over to Sugarloaf’s grass strip or sneaking my boyfriend up to Mackinac Island; learning aerobatics, getting checked out in a taildragger, soaring with a friend and even flying into Oshkosh for their annual airshow; these memories are all tucked away to be pulled out frequently and enjoyed.
I do miss it. I was young. I was invulnerable. I knew no fear when it came to flying. I trusted my fellow pilots, my little airplane, and myself.
Mom’s cousin Rene, long-deceased, had been a pilot, himself, and she talked of him often as she shared his daredevil flying stories. Not long ago I surprised my then 89-year-old mom with a ride in an open-cockpit Waco bi-plane over St. Augustine, Florida. Mom has always been up for anything, and I knew she’d love it. Mike, our pilot in the back seat, was pretty pumped about taking his oldest passenger flying, extending the usual 20-minute flight to 45 minutes. I’ll never forget Mom’s face mirroring my own cheek-to-cheek grin as we took off feeling the wind and the power of that Waco. Over the oldest city, circling this way and that, out over the Atlantic we flew, entirely thrilled. Turning towards the shore, I leaned over to my mom and said, ‘Let’s tip our hats to Rene!’ And with a smile on our faces and sheer joy in our hearts, we saluted the sky.