On Becoming An Aviatrix: From Jumpseat to Left Seat (Part IV)

16 07 2010

At the end of my last post, Making My Way to the Front , I found myself in awe at an altitude of 24,000 feet in the flight deck for the first time. Who knew delivering a cup of coffee could be so life changing? As I walked back into the cabin and sat in my flight attendant jumpseat I could not get the experience of being in the flight deck out of my head. It played like a movie, and would continue to do so repeatedly. To this day I remember it clearly. A seed had germinated, and was about to go through its first rapid growth spurt.

What was the short term result of my experience in the flight deck? I became an excellent flight attendant of course! Not only is it in my nature to try and do whatever it is I do well (which I will add I accomplish to varying degrees), but I had one important extra incentive to do a good job and to do it quickly. Back in the pre-9/11 days, flight attendants were permitted to enter the flight deck during flights, unlike post-9/11 which allows them to enter the flight deck only under very few specific circumstances. So I learned to accomplish my flight attendant duties very quickly and efficiently, the reward being a short break up in the flight deck. This was no small feat. At American Eagle, being a regional airline, the flights were brief, most often under an hour and some as short as 20 minutes. It became like a game – literally.

One flight crew I was flying with for a month actually used to bet on how long it would take me to complete my inflight service and make my routine interphone call: “Anything needed in the flight deck?” That was their cue to ask me for something…anything. Even if they didn’t need anything my answer was always “Right away.”

That is how almost every flight possible I ended up in the flight deck jumpseat for about 5 to 10 minutes at a time. That was a lot of time considering our schedules included up to 7 flights each day, and our lines probably averaged about 70 hours per month. I did that for 2-1/2 years. Sometimes I would just sit and observe. Other times I would ask questions. Many of the pilots were very encouraging about my desire to learn to fly, and gave me short “lessons.” They let me shadow them on their pre- and post-flight aircraft inspections while explaining what they were doing and answering any questions I may have had.

Later on, after I had begun formal flight training, I even called in for the preflight ATIS (automated terminal information system, i.e. weather, airport notes, etc.) and IFR (instrument flight rules) clearance on the ground while at LAX.

It was June 4, 1998, just a little over three months after I had become a flight attendant that I took my introductory flight at San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport (SBP) on the California Central Coast. A good friend of my husband who was a private pilot highly recommended to me his CFI (certified flight instructor). I trusted this particular friend’s judgment, so I went with his recommendation and scheduled my first flight. I showed up to the airport having no idea what to expect.

No one that I was very close to was a pilot, so I was “green” in the true sense of the term. I remember thinking that he would probably do most or all of the flying while explaining to me what he was doing. How wrong I was! From preflight to postflight and everything in between he had me do everything.

The first of many surprises was how small the airplane was. It was two-place, Cessna 152. While sitting inside it felt smaller than any car in which I had ever been! But first things first: we would begin by inspecting the plane, simply called the preflight. I actually questioned whether or not he was pulling my leg when he told me to climb up on the strut to inspect the wing and then take off the gas caps and smell the gasoline…”Really?!,” I said. “Yes, really,” he said. That particular dialog happened repeatedly throughout the flight as he talked me through the whole experience, step-by-step. “I’m going to take off??? …..You want me to stall the plane?!?….Turn this steeply??? …..Do you really think I can land this?!?!” YES, I could do it, and I did it. When it was all over, I was back on the ground, but still in the clouds! Every pilot remembers their first flight, which is always a magical moment in one’s life.

For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return. — Leonardo Da Vinci

Next blog post: The logistics & challenges of learning to fly while juggling home life and working as a full time flight crew member.

Previously published July 7, 2010 at Forbes.com “Wheels Up”

On Becoming An Aviatrix: The Seed Is Planted (Part I)

14 06 2010

Picking up where I left off on my introductory blog post on my story of how I became an aviatrix I will now begin to answer the question “What happened that caused me to want to become a pilot?”

As I mentioned previously I had been intrigued with aviation and in awe of pilots and flight crews in general since I was a small child. My first aviation memory must have been when I was about 4 years old, and my dad had to live temporarily in Michigan for a work assignment. I remember flying in a “Jumbo jet” with my mother and sisters out to visit him. To me, everything aviation related: the airport, the plane & even the food, was fantastic and larger than life! Being from a large middle class family of eight, the relatively high expense of airline tickets meant there were very few flying trips. This infrequency of flying, I believe, only added to the specialness of flying.  I would say this keen intrigue of all things aviation was the “Seed”  for the idea of becoming a pilot.

So just as a seed may lay dormant in the earth for many, many years until the conditions are just right for germination, my “Seed” of flying lay dormant for years. Until I was 21 years old to be exact. It was then that I had moved from Orange County in southern California to San Luis Obispo on the Central Coast to transfer into the School of Architecture at California Polytechnic State University, a.k.a. “Cal Poly.” Fast forward three years later and I was married with a son and another baby on the way. It was 1991, and my husband, Leonard, was about to graduate from architecture school. The question came up: “Where will we live after graduation?”

Having an architecture firm, which was always the goal, benefits from carefully selecting a location to set down roots, network, and build your reputation.  It isn’t simple nor is it easy to relocate as an architect. With that in mind we contemplated staying in San Luis Obispo. Being my husband’s hometown, he would have a head start in networking. His parents were active in the community and had a large social network. His father was on the police force, and his mother owned a popular gourmet kitchen shop in downtown San Luis Obispo. Leonard was a graduate from San Luis Obispo High School, and was fairly popular in his class. Additionally, anyone who knows anything about San Luis Obispo knows it’s quite the charming, idyllic college town. Many more graduates desire to stay than are actually able, and on top of that 1991 was smack in the middle of a recession. There were building moratoriums throughout the county to boot caused by severe drought conditions.

The other factor we considered was whether or not I would be happy living in a small town. Coming from a large suburban area it took me several years to actually adjust to what locals call “The SLO life.” I probably drove back down to Orange County once every month just to get out of SLO and feel like I was living life at a faster pace. Then I remembered that my father-in-law was a pilot. I had learned this fact before when I first met Leonard and thought it was cool, but never really thought of flying myself. I began to think, “What if I learned to fly?!” Then that could solve that cabin fever, living-in-a-small-town-feeling I thought I would have. Living in a small town wouldn’t be bad at all if only I could fly out as I pleased. Easier said than done….. I decided I wanted to become a pilot, but that is not the same as believing I could be a pilot. At this point it was only a dream.

Next blog post: The events that led up to believing I could actually be a pilot.

Previously published June 14, 2010 at Forbes.com “Wheels Up”

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