Flying with the Phillips 66 Aerostars

When my editor texted me in Israel about a ride with the Phillips 66 Aerostars on Thursday at SUN ‘n FUN, she didn’t ask if I wanted the ride, she asked if I’d be back in time for it. Even if being at the Media Center at 7:30 a.m. required mainlining caffeine, I was all in.

Photographer Matt Genuardi loaned his GoPro. So, jet-lag gave way to Extra 300L thrills.

Alicia Herron, who writes for the AOPA Air Safety Institute, and Josh Flowers, who runs YouTube Channel Aviation 101, were revved about flying with the Aerostars. Josh had a case full of cameras to document his ride. The fourth rider was Jamie Allison, Brand Director for Phillips 66 Lubricants.

media ride-along

Jamie was the only non-pilot in the mix. None of us flinched at signing the liability waiver. No one backed out after Pilot Jerry ‘Fossil’ Molidor’s safety briefing that included a warning about the red ejection levers on the $25,000 canopy. But there’s something about getting strapped into a parachute that solidifies the risks of high-speed formation flying.

Jamie followed Pilot Harvey ‘Boss’ Meek to the number 1 plane. Josh and Pilot Paul ‘Rocket’ Hornick headed to plane 2. Alicia climbed into plane number 3 with Pilot David ‘Cupid’ Monroe. Pilot Gerry ‘Fossil’ Molidor secured me into plane 4 tighter than Dolly Parton’s bra.

The pilots fired up their engines and I fired up the GoPro. We taxied from the NOAA hangar to runway 090 and rocketed off the runway in pairs, heading east and south before moving into a snug diamond formation. I wouldn’t taxi that close to another plane, but there we were diving, then pulling up into a loop close enough to three other aircraft to elicit prayer and gasps of awe. Was that three or four Gs in the loop? I looked to my right and saw Alicia in plane 3 smiling like a kid at Disney.

My grip on the GoPro turned my fingers white. It was the only thing in the plane not secured in a 7-point harness or bolted down. Once a passenger lost a cell phone in one of the Aerostar’s planes and the seat had to be removed.

We banked left and perhaps we did a barrel roll. I was watching the silly GoPro screen instead of looking through the canopy. Watching is not the same as experiencing. Returning attention to the experience, I felt more steep turns. Then plane 1 cut sharply left. The other planes snapped left, following one by one.

The aerial dance continued as the planes aligned at the same altitude as if posing for a photo. We then landed one by one, taxied to the NOAA building, and parked in number order.

I can’t wait to share the video with my husband, who envied me for getting to ride along. Of course, watching the ride is akin to seeing photos of the Grand Canyon. The images don’t really compare to the in-person experience. Thank you, Phillips 66 Aerostars!

Phillips 66 Aerostars

You Say You Want Your Wife to Fly

A mere six percent of the licensed pilots in America are female. As one of them, I often hear men complain, “I can’t get my wife to fly with me.” Okay, guys, let me explain something. Some of the tactics you use to attract your loved one into aviation have driven her away from it. 

SEE HOW SAFE IT IS?

My husband asked me that at 4,000 feet after throttling back the engine. He thought that demonstrating his skill at handling a simulated emergency would instill confidence. I was not a pilot then so the maneuver felt like a real emergency that instilled terror, followed by fury. This stunt has been repeated by males all over the country. If you want your wife to fly with you then never, ever take her for a thrill ride to show her how well you handle the plane. How impressed would you be if your pilot on a commercial flight demonstrated a roll? A method that works: invite her on a short flight in gorgeous weather and give her a smooth, uneventful ride. Instead of acting like a race car driver behave like a limo driver.

I’M GOING WITH OR WITHOUT YOU

This is another dangerous tactic. It dares the one left behind to find her own fun things to do without you. Why make the airplane an object of scorn and jealousy? Trust me when I say that bullying, nagging, and harassing women will not achieve positive long-term results. Sure, it takes time to discuss and address her concerns about flying. Perhaps her hesitation to take your offer of a four-hour flight means she has a three-hour bladder. For you flying may have been love at first flight while she needs a longer courtship. One enterprising pilot lured his wife into a deep love of aviation with this deal—for every dollar he spent on flying he gave her a dollar. When I met this couple during the Cayman Caravan she, adorned with stunning jewelry, gushed about how much she adored flying.

YOU SHOULD WANT TO

Yes, yes, you enjoy flying and you expect that because you do she should, too. And when, exactly, did you take up cross-stitch to share her appreciation of it? For some couples, the ideal arrangement is for the woman to ride along. If she doesn’t want to take lessons, she might enjoy reading the checklist, setting the radio and transponder codes or helping in other ways as an educated passenger. If you can convince her to take the 10-hour Pinch-Hitter’s course then it would give her the chance to try out aviation without a long-term commitment. This course demystifies the purpose of all those whiz-bang toys on the panel. I took the course because my husband wanted to buy a plane. During that brief course, I discovered the fun. It can happen.

WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU WANT TO FLY?

What are you gonna do if your wife really does enjoy flying enough to get her license? Be honest. When you and your wife climb into the car do you ALWAYS drive? If so, then she knows in her heart that she shouldn’t bother to get her license. The famous flying couple of John and Martha King operate King Schools, a flight training company, in San Diego. John explains the problem he’s witnessed over and over after a woman earns her license, “the men absolutely, flat-out, totally fail to relinquish any authority or power to the woman and after all, she may as well be in the back seat because there’s nothing in it for her. That is as universal as the fact that the man always rides up front on a Harley. What happens is that even when the woman is flying she’s nothing more than a voice-activated autopilot and that is absolutely no fun.”

I’M ONLY TRYING TO HELP

These few words sound oh, so lame after you’ve switched radio frequencies on your wife without telling her and she calls Asheville approach Greensboro. Pilot-in-command (PIC) is authority women may have to enforce with rope and duct tape, if necessary. Husbands, be warned, mysterious changes in power, radio frequencies or altimeter setting pose a threat to your safety if your wife is PIC. If you wouldn’t touch the controls when another man is PIC then don’t do so when a woman is PIC. One time, with my mother-in-law in the back seat, I had to tell my co-pilot husband to get his hands off my knobs. It worked.

Flight Instructor John King advises couples to behave like commercial pilots when they share the cockpit. To men in the co-pilot’s seat, he advises “and you don’t make wild comments, as the co-pilot, in giving your opinion about this or that. All you can do is present facts. So you can say ‘sink is one thousand.’ That’s okay. ‘You’re too low and darn it you’re descending too fast’ is not correct, because it’s an opinion.”

FLY LIKE ME

It is unreasonable and unfair to expect a low-time pilot to fly like a high-time pilot. If you have a thousand hours and your wife has two hundred hours then it will take her longer to notice a two-degree course drift. Wait and watch. If the course drift becomes dangerous then state the facts. Hold the sarcasm. Remove any inflection or word choice that could be interpreted as disappointment or criticism. Imagine you are coaching your child to ride a two-wheeler. Allow for that awkward learning period. Be encouraging. Accept differences in style and timing.

JUST LIKE ONE OF THE GUYS

In 500 hours of flying I’ve landed safely after gear malfunctions, a blown cylinder and an electrical failure. Okay, I squealed like a girl when the gear motor failed, but I used the hand crank and landed safely. Even though women might reek of Avgas, hold umpteen ratings and fly like one of the guys, we will never be one of the guys. For example: I became one of 12,229 private pilots to earn an instrument rating in 2000. Upon return from my flight exam, the usual gathering of male pilots filled chairs in front of the terminal. After I said I had passed my instrument flight exam they congratulated me and offered to cut out my shirt. The front, of course. The dears.

So, gentlemen, since you hold 94% of the licenses, it’s up to you to make aviation inviting to women. You can do it and I hope this helps.

___

This article first appeared in the premiere edition of Carolinas Aviator magazine.

carolinas aviator magazine cover

Couples Sharing the Cockpit: Fact or Friction?

My husband, a physician, and pilot joined the Flying Physicians organization and so we flew to their annual meeting in New Orleans in 1998. When the editor of the Flying Physician magazine heard that I was a pilot he asked me to write about why so many wives refuse or resist flying with their husbands no matter how much their husbands want to share the cockpit. This article is my explanation of that phenomenon.
couples sharing the cockpitJohn had problems convincing his wife, Martha, that she could enjoy flying. Before her first flying lesson, Martha tried to climb back out of the plane. John and the instructor acted immediately and decisively. As John tells it, “We had a wrestling match and shoved her back in.” “She went along with grim determination until her first solo cross country,” John explained. While John and the instructor paced on the ramp, Martha dodged storms and wound up coming back after dark. She marveled at the sunset from this new perspective and fell in love with flying. Today, John and Martha King own and operate King Schools of San Diego, California, where they teach flight training. They have become a poster couple of general aviation. Because only 6 percent of pilots are women, most couples in general aviation don’t share a pilot-to-pilot relationship in the cockpit. The majority of women fly as passengers. The complaint “I can’t get my wife to fly with me” demonstrates a trend in general aviation that can be changed. We will explore a few of the factors working for and against flying couples.

FUN FACTOR

Other than access to airplanes, the FUN FACTOR is a key element in attracting women into aviation. Jackie Cochran, the first woman to break the sound barrier, got her pilot’s license on a dare from her husband. Aerobatic champion Betty Skelton Frankman’s parents brought her to the FBO for their flying lessons. Patty Wagstaff’s father used to take her for rides in his plane, but she really got involved with aviation after her husband taught her a few aerobatic maneuvers. The first woman to earn a pilot’s license, Harriet Quimby, entered aviation for the fun of it with her pal Matilde Moissant, whose husband offered flying lessons in New Orleans. (Yes, the Moissant after whom the airport is named.) In their eagerness to get women to enjoy flying, some men have unintentionally driven women away from it. Veteran flight instructors cite one serious, common tactical error men make — let’s call it the

SEE HOW SAFE FLYING IS FACTOR

Using this tactic, a fellow convinces his wife or girlfriend to go for a ride so he can show off his new skills. In trying to make the ride fun, he demonstrates emergency procedures, slow flight, stalls, spins, rolls, steep turns and such. He means well, the poor dear, but this stuff scares the lunch out of most people. Granted, a few women love this kind of thing. The rest will display symptoms such as icy silence, fainting, screaming, threats and clawing at the windows. But who can blame them? Who would ever fly twice on ABC Airlines if one of their pilots demonstrated a stall during flight? Experienced professional pilots know that passengers enjoy and expect uneventful flights. Leave the thrill rides to theme parks.

I’M GOING TO HAVE FUN WITH OR WITHOUT YOU FACTOR

Another common unsuccessful tactic men employ is to simply leave the woman behind and go fly. The I’M GOING TO HAVE FUN WITH OR WITHOUT YOU FACTOR has one major flaw. It invites, begs and dares the one left behind to reciprocate in kind. This tactic also makes the airplane an object of scorn and jealousy. Bullying, threats, nagging, harassing and frightening women won’t achieve positive long-term results. Of course, it’s more time-consuming to find out why she doesn’t want to fly and respectfully address that concern, but asking a man to do this would be like expecting him to ask for directions. A woman may stay away from flying because of fear, motion sickness, apathy, or pursuit of other goals. Perhaps the “Mrs.” doesn’t eagerly accept a four-hour flight because she has a three-hour bladder. Is she adventurous enough to wear a Depends ® undergarment? Fun is a matter of perspective.

HASSLE:FUN RATIO FACTOR

The HASSLE:FUN RATIO FACTOR often works against women more than it does for men. For a woman with young children, taking flying lessons poses a series of unique obstacles. Is a sitter available during the day? How much time is there to fly between the start and end of daycare or school? Can she juggle carpool duties to allow time for a cross-country flight? Who will help with the children’s homework while she studies for the written exam? Even if she thrives on flying, she will not continue if the hassle:fun ratio leans heavily toward hassle.

THE GUY DRIVES THE HARLEY FACTOR

Women who obtain their pilot’s license often face another obstacle that John King describes as “the biggest single failure of men — failing to relinquish power to women in the cockpit. They’ll try it a few times and the men absolutely, flat-out, totally, fail to relinquish any authority or power to the woman and, after all, she may as well be in the back seat because there’s nothing in it for her. That is as universal as the fact that the man always rides up front on a Harley. What happens is that even when the woman is flying she’s nothing more than a voice-activated autopilot and that is absolutely no fun.” Let’s call this THE GUY DRIVES THE HARLEY FACTOR. It is no coincidence the Harley-Davidson brand motorcycle is called a ‘hog’. Couples who fly together find the greatest peace in the cockpit when they behave as the professionals do. The ground rules include acknowledging that the person in the left seat is genuinely the pilot in command (PIC). In an emergency only one person can fly the plane, so the ‘who’s driving’ issue must be settled before takeoff. Imagine what auto insurance rates would be if cars had dual controls. Settling the command issue means more than just saying the words; it means trusting the PIC. For example, pilots Larry and Martha Walker of Winter Haven, Florida, have flown together for years, yet when Martha was recently PIC she remarked that the right brake didn’t work. As they taxied down the ramp, Larry insisted the brakes had just been fixed. Martha asked him to taxi back to the hangar. Larry ended up steering the plane off the taxiway into the grass, where he graciously apologized. It all goes back to the question — Would a man treat another man this way? Which brings us to the

I’M ONLY TRYING TO HELP FACTOR

Even men with zero flight training have been known to offer advice from the right seat. How many men have ‘helped’ women fly by adjusting controls from the right seat? This can be wonderfully handy with the consent and knowledge of the PIC; without consent, however, the mysterious change of power, radio frequencies and such can be hazardous. If a man wouldn’t touch the controls when another man is in command, then he shouldn’t do so when a woman is in command. After all, cockpit fights are such poor form. They destroy morale among the passengers. John King recommends professional cockpit resource management. “The co-pilot on a commercial airliner doesn’t fiddle with the throttle or adjust the gear without a command from the captain, they just don’t do that. Period. Ever. And you don’t make wild comments, as the co-pilot, in giving your opinion about this or that. All you can do is present facts. So you can say ‘sink is one thousand’ — that’s okay — ‘you’re too low and darn it you’re descending too fast’ is not correct because it’s an opinion.” Dennis and Janeen Kochan, of Winter Haven, Florida, flew for separate carriers and are flight instructors. Janeen, a guest speaker at Lakeland’s Sun ‘N Fun Fly-In, observed that “the tone in the cockpit, when couples are flying together, reflects their total relationship.” She’s met men who nag their wives and girlfriends of pilots whose interest in aviation stopped on their wedding day. Change of altitude does not change the relationship. Let’s call this the

FLYING PIG FACTOR

If the relationship stinks on the ground, it will stink in the air, too. For some couples, the happiest arrangement may be for the man to fly left seat. A woman who doesn’t want to fly the plane might enjoy reading the checklist aloud, setting the transponder, learning how to operate the radios and writing down instructions from controllers during flight. For couples to develop a sound working relationship in the cockpit, they must communicate clearly and honestly to establish their own ground rules. Because men hold 94 percent of the airmen certificates, men predominantly influence the future of general aviation by inviting women to fly.
Cessna Centurion 210

This is me with my favorite plane.

Here are a few suggestions for making flights more enjoyable for women. Allow a woman time to enjoy flying. Not everyone feels love at first sight. Some require courtship. Go the extra mile to make each flight a wonderful experience. This can mean waiting for good weather before taking up a skittish passenger. Start with brief flights and work up to long flights. Discover where she wants to go. Treat each other with the same courtesy you would use with royalty. Communicate clearly and respectfully. Never perform aerial stunts (slow flight, loops, rolls, spins, stalls) without the prior knowledge and eager consent of the passenger. The pilot in command is an earned title. Respect it. And finally, be prepared to share PIC duties if she becomes as enthralled with flying as you are. It can happen.

Not Just Along for the Ride

cover of AOPA Pilot magazine“Why can’t you take up golf?” I pleaded when my husband Maury announced he was going to learn to fly. First the red sports car, now this? My second reaction was to check our life insurance policies and our will. Was this part of a man’s ‘go-fast’ stage of life? He seemed undeterred by news clippings of commercial airliners pictured as twisted smoking remains. I feared what I didn’t know. I worried about the dangers that he would face in an environment with such fatal consequences for error. Would he perform as well at flying as someone who does it for a living?

Throughout his training, he urged me to take lessons, but I wasn’t interested in riding in a small airplane, let alone controlling one. I preferred tamer, safer activities, such as waterskiing in the alligator-infested lakes of Central Florida, where we lived. Maury loved flying from day one and tried to instill his enthusiasm in me. At times his insistence, that I should do as he does, felt like badgering or nagging. I didn’t appreciate being ‘should’ upon and told him so. Suddenly the nagging stopped, and I traced the cause back to his flight instructor, who had warned him that nagging creates resistance.

FIRST FLIGHT

After Maury got his certificate, he offered me a ride. Knowing how diligently he had studied this new hobby, I felt obliged to go. What a mistake. He explained how safe the plane was and said something about how stable it flew in an engine failure, and then—at 4,000 feet—it sounded as if he had stopped the engine. While he told me how many miles the plane would glide, I sucked air and stared at the panel of blinking lights, knobs and dials, hating them all. This stunt provoked panic and severely uncharitable thoughts toward the man I had loved and trusted for sixteen years. Handling emergencies, he explained, was part of the training. Smiling, he told me that he had everything under control, but all I could think about was beating him senseless if we survived.

“Start it up again now!” I demanded, dreading the long fall to the orange groves below. This was not how I wanted to spend my final moments.

When the sounds of the engine returned, my fear converted to silent fury. He had meant well. He believed that by simulating the worst-case scenario—an engine failure—he would prove that there was nothing to fear. By the time we landed I had calmed down to mere yelling. He was shocked that I hadn’t enjoyed the ride. This stunt kept me away from small planes for six months.

Clearly, he would continue flying with or without me. My choices were: to never get into a small plane—and spend weekends alone—or learn to fly so that I could land if I had to. I decided to challenge my fears.

Male pilots such as Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, Chuck Yeager, and the ones so common on commercial flights, gave me the impression of aviation as a male-dominated realm. The only significant woman pilot I could name then was Amelia Earhart. In my mind, Lindbergh was famous because he had successfully flown across an ocean, and Earhart because she had died trying.

WOMEN PILOTS?

The few local women pilots I interrogated stressed that learning to fly wasn’t as mentally challenging as getting a college degree or as physically demanding as childbirth. After a ‘been there, done that’ pep talk to myself, I called Don Kohler, CFII, for an abbreviated training course on how to call for help on the radio and to provide practice in landing the plane. Patient, courageous, and witty, Kohler was the perfect instructor for me. He had been flying longer than I’d been alive, and the folks at the airport said that he didn’t scare easily.

I learned two important things on the first lesson: one, my feet couldn’t reach the rudder pedals; and two, bulky earrings don’t go with headsets. By lesson two, I had a booster seat and studs, and we went flying.

Kohler encouraged me through the hurricane season flight by flight. On our third flight, he casually brought up his beliefs about the afterlife, quickly adding that he wasn’t in a hurry to test them and would I please not touch the mixture control on final approach again. Gee, how did he know that I had momentarily confused it with the throttle?

Kohler’s coaching built my confidence and knowledge in increments, introducing me to each knob and dial, each chart and calculation and its importance. The only time I became unnerved came when we were on final approach at Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field, a non-tower controlled field. After I dutifully announced my position in the approach pattern on the downwind leg, the base leg, and the final leg, a man announced that he, too, was on short final and was going to ‘scoot’ under us. His low-wing plane zoomed 200 feet below us seconds later. I couldn’t reply to Scooter because what I wanted to say to him was prohibited according to FCC directives. I was forced to execute a go-around because landing behind him would have caused a crash. Scooter was long gone from the airport by the time we landed.

After hearing about the day’s lesson, my husband said, “Welcome to uncontrolled airspace.”

Helicopters, seaplanes, skydivers, hot air balloons, gliders, birds, and ‘stealth-flyer wannabes’ who don’t use the radio offer a variety of hazards for pilots. But, as my mother says, “Life is not fair—adjust.”

After many practice landings, the instructor dropped his hands in his lap and let me land the plane. My goal changed. YEEEEHA! No more learning just enough for an emergency; I wanted more. I wanted my certificate. When we walked into Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base, where I had rented the airplane, Kohler congratulated me again and then urged me to leave immediately; he recommended running. I obediently ran to the van and zipped home.

At our next lesson, he explained the peculiar traditions for celebrating a solo flight, such as cutting out and hanging the back of the pilot’s shirt or throwing the person in the lake. Had I known, I’d have kept a Dolly Parton-size bra handy for them to hang in my name.

Our neighbors, the Walkers, often took Saturdays to fly to the beach for what they called a hundred-dollar hamburger. They demonstrated the fun of flying as more than a means to get somewhere. The ground school course that I studied, featuring John and Martha King, also showed couples happily flying together. I wanted to be part of a team, to be more than someone just along for the ride, more than someone to hold the charts. It took me a year to get the certificate, completing the practical flight exam on my instructor’s birthday.

I’ve found no negative discrimination from male pilots beyond the usual “you have your license?” asked after I’ve already said so. Well, then there was the time that I walked into an airport lounge and the men stopped talking and looked uncomfortable. Doubting that their silence was from awe or hormone surges, I wondered if they were offended that a woman dared to enter their Y-Chromosome sanctum, so I didn’t linger. It turned out that the men weren’t offended by me; in fact, they were trying to avoid offending me because my sudden appearance had interrupted a rude joke. I can live with that. I can also live with having my hair restyled by David Clark headsets. And I can live with the smell of aviation fuel as my signature scent.

SIX PERCENT

Joni M Fisher with planeAccording to Diane Green, management assistant at the aviation piloting statistics branch of the FAA, women hold only six percent of the airman certificates in the United States. I’m proud to be one of them. And maybe, one day, we can fix that title. How long would men tolerate being called airwomen? How about calling us all fliers or aviators or pilots instead? Flying skills are not gender specific.

My husband is so proud that I challenged my fears to embrace his favorite activity that he works “My wife is a pilot” into conversations. I hope women settle for more than holding charts. Aim higher. Hold the controls. Flying is fun, and yes, I’d even recommend it over playing golf.


AOPA PILOT, The Airplane Owners and Pilots Association magazine, is the largest circulation magazine in general aviation with 400,000 subscribers. This article appeared in the New Pilot’s Journal column in November 1998. In 2000, I earned the instrument rating for single-engine land aircraft.

Call Me

I love it when editors call. Some editors call because they want a woman’s perspective on my hobby—aviation. Only six percent of pilots are women, so I’m kind of a novelty. Some editors call for reprints on essays or articles that made them laugh. Some editors call because they want an article on a topic a staffer doesn’t have time to write. In 2003 a call came from an editor representing a magazine that I’d never written for, nor queried. He explained that he was preparing the special annual edition of WaterFlying magazine for the spring and would I consider writing an article on Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Florida? The edition would feature seaplane bases and schools around the world. Okay, so this editor called because he needed a writer in Winter Haven. When asked how he learned about me, he said he’d picked up my business card from a writing colleague who could not accept the assignment. Okay, so I’m the SECOND choice, but not too proud to accept a hand-me-down. He offered $500. I knew the place well enough to avoid the second pot of coffee of the day. I knew the people, like the Japanese pilots who gathered on the back porch to photograph alligators, and the instructor Rennie who wrote THE book on seaplane training. The owner, Jon Brown, lived on my block. I knew the myths and legends and history of the base that was, coincidentally, celebrating its 40th year of operation. Familiar and newsworthy, this place taught stick and rudder flying in cloth-covered, slow-moving aircraft. This place humbled Air Force fighter pilots and thrilled private pilots. Brown’s Seaplane Base sat on the lakeside edge of the Winter Haven airport. It was where I learned to fly. As one of the few, the cheap and the brave who learned to fly a land plane at a seaplane base, this story felt like mine to tell. The editor didn’t care that I had never taken a lesson in a seaplane. He wanted me to capture the people and the place. Astronauts, celebrities and foreign pilots learned to fly seaplanes at Brown’s. Commander Kenneth Bowersox emailed from the International Space Station to his favorite instructor—at Brown’s. The fraternity of instructors at Brown’s connected seaplane pilots from around the globe and many dropped in for coffee and storytelling. Brown’s appeared in the credits of movies. On a trip to Alaska, my husband and I signed up for a seaplane ride over a glacier. The pilot had taught at Brown’s. Who could call such a fun assignment work? The gang gave an odd mix of reactions when interviewed since they knew me as a pilot and friend instead of as a writer. Somewhere between “spell my name right” and “is this on the record?” they shared their passion for the base. The instructors described the “Armstrong” starter on the J3-Cub as I dutifully jotted notes. It was only later when I saw them hand-prop the cub that I knew I’d been had. The dears. These are the same guys who tried to explain to me the tradition of cutting out the back of a shirt when someone solos. For women, they said straight-faced, they cut out the front. After the article appeared in WaterFlying magazine the gang at Brown’s gave me their sign of approval—they asked when the next article would be published. They, too, liked seeing their names in print (anywhere but the Post Office). I queried Pipers magazine because the seaplane base relied on Piper aircraft for 40 years of training. Pipers gladly bought the reprint. With guilty pleasure, I cashed the checks. After these articles were published, hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne all passed within fifteen miles of Brown’s Seaplane Base. Frances took off the roof. Frances is also the name of the owner’s wife. Do you think I’ll let this aviation news pass without reporting on it? I’ve done the background research, I have the clips to show about the base. Lemme see. Now which aviation magazine would pay the best for such a story? Call me shameless, call me published. Call me if you’re an editor. __________________________ Joni M. Fisher, author of South of Justice, is a writer and an instrument-rated private pilot who lives in Central Florida and North Carolina. She is a reporter for General Aviation News when she isn’t working on her Compass Crimes Series. See her website: www.jonimfisher.com.

The Plane Truth

Getting my pilot’s license could be a boost for my marriage–if it didn’t kill us first.

“Why can’t you take up golf?” I pleaded when my husband, Maury, announced he was going to learn to fly. Fly? First the red sports car, now this? Was this part of a man’s “go-fast stage” of life?

But the more I tried to talk him out of his newfound desire, the more set he was to try it.

I had a feeling this one would test our relationship. And all my pleadings were in vain.

Throughout his training, Maury urged me to take lessons. But I wasn’t interested in riding in a small airplane, let alone piloting one.

I preferred tamer activities, such as water skiing in the alligator-infested lakes of Central Florida where we live. Of course, when I tried to learn to water ski, I broke a bone in my foot and sprained my neck. Bad knees prevented me from keeping up with him during snow skiing, and a near brush with drowning made scuba diving less than appealing.

But we wanted to find fun hobbies we could share. My pursuits of cross-stitch, gardening, and reading didn’t lend themselves to drawing us closer as a couple. And Maury, who loved flying from day one, believed sincerely he’d found just the hobby for both of us to experience together.

“You should try it. It’s really fun,” he insisted. I responded that I don’t appreciate being “should” upon. This hobby definitely wasn’t love at first sight—for me.

A death-defying ride

Several months later Maury earned his license and offered me a ride. My first impulse was to shout “No way!” But I knew how much it meant to him, so I nervously accepted.

During our flight, he explained how safe the plane was and how stable it flew in an engine failure. Then—at 4,000 feet above an orange grove—it sounded like the engine stopped.

While he excitedly told me how many miles the plane would glide, I sucked air and stared at the panel of blinking lights, knobs, and dials.

This stunt provoked not only panic but severely uncharitable thoughts toward the man I loved and had trusted.

“Handling emergencies,” he explained, “is part of the training.”

“Start it up again now!” I screamed. This was not how I wanted to spend my final moments.

“It’s okay. I have it under control,” Maury soothed, manipulating the hateful controls.

“Yeah, well, I don’t,” I yelled.

If hell had a theme-park this would be the featured ride, I thought.

The engine roared back to life and I resumed breathing. By the time we landed I’d calmed to seething fury. Maury was genuinely shocked that I hadn’t enjoyed my first ride. Apparently, by simulating the worst-case scenario— engine failure—he hoped to prove there was nothing to fear. He explained that a similar demonstration had impressed him, so he assumed it would have the same effect on me. I explained that it made me want to beat him senseless.

I can fly!

Clearly, Maury was committed to this hobby and would continue flying with or without me. My choices were: A) avoid small planes and spend weekends alone—which didn’t meet our doing fun hobbies together quota, or B) take a few lessons so I could land the plane in an emergency—such as if he ever choked the engine again.

After deliberating my options, I finally—reluctantly—chose option B. Flying was important to Maury, it was something I could do with him, and it could be an extra boost for our marriage—if it didn’t kill us first.

Maury was delighted. “You’re going to love this!” he said. “Just think about all the fun we can have together.”

Yeah, right.

Male pilots such as Charles Lindbergh, Eddie Rickenbacker, Chuck Yeager, and the ones so visible on commercial flights, gave me the impression that aviation was a male-dominated realm. The only significant woman pilot I could name then was Amelia Earhart. According to what I knew, Lindbergh was famous because he’d successfully flown across an ocean; Earhart because she had died trying. Not a ringing endorsement.

The few local women pilots I interrogated stressed that learning to fly wasn’t as mentally challenging as getting a college degree or as physically demanding as childbirth. After a “been there, done that” self pep talk, I called a certified flight instructor for an abbreviated course on how to call for help on the radio and to provide practice in landing the plane. Patient, courageous, and witty, Don Kohler had been flying longer than I’d been alive, and the folks at the airport said he didn’t scare easily.

Don and I practiced landings for weeks with both of us holding the controls while Don talked through the procedure. Over time he loosened his grip more and more until one day I looked over and saw his arms folded and his feet off the rudder pedals. I’d landed the plane! And with no injuries and no airplane parts left behind on the runway. Cue the Peter Pan soundtrack: “I can fly, I can fly. I can fly!”

The friendly skies

Flush with adrenaline and success, I wanted more. When I told my sweetie I needed more lessons, well, you’d think Ed McMahon had handed him a giant cardboard check. I hadn’t seen him that excited—with his clothes on, anyway—in years. Money flowed toward this mutual objective.

It wasn’t enough for me to go along for the ride or to hold the charts for him. It wasn’t enough for me to be an educated passenger. I wanted us to be a team of qualified pilots. After earning my private pilot’s license, I earned the coveted instrument rating so my husband and I could simply take turns flying. Maury earned a commercial license with seaplane, instrument and multi-engine ratings as well. While I’ll probably never catch up to him, I’ve achieved skills beyond his—and my—expectations. I even took a few aerobatic lessons, just for the thrill of it.

So what if my hair gets re-styled by headsets and I smell like aviation fuel? Who would think that 110 low lead could be an aphrodisiac? Friends who once told us we were crazy now ask for rides. To afford a great airplane we share ownership of a well-equipped Cessna 210 (identified as N761XD) with two other couples. I’m alive in my husband’s heart as a can-do woman who shares his new exciting world of aviation. Oh—and I love it when he calls me Captain.

Joni climbing into an RV-6Embracing my husband’s hobby taught me to stretch my boundaries and to overcome fear through knowledge and ability. Flying gives my husband a separate world from his high-stress job as an orthopedic surgeon. Flying gives me freedom. Flying gives us both a new and exciting dimension to our relationship.

According to the statistics branch of the Federal Aviation Administration, women hold only 6 percent of the airman certificates in the United States. I’m proud to be one of them. My husband is so proud that he works, “My wife is a pilot” into conversations. Sure, over the last eight years we’ve flown to West Texas, Northern Michigan, Grand Cayman, the Bahamas, and many places in between. But the more significant benefit of sharing this hobby is that it brings a level of intimacy—we trust each other with our lives. And we spend more time together.

Sharing a hobby helped prevent us from drifting apart when it seemed some days that our only common interests were our daughter and our faith. Though we also have separate interests, we have this one to share, to draw us together, and enjoy long after our child leaves home. I would have robbed our relationship if I hadn’t taken those trial flying lessons to see why my husband embraced this hobby. Maury was right. Flying is fun, and yes, for us, it beats playing golf.


This article first appeared in 2006 in a Christianity Today publication. They were publishing a series on how sharing a hobby can affect the marriage relationship. The original is in their archives.

Parts of this piece were adapted from AOPA PILOT.