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.

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.

Last Lesson from Don

The last time I saw Don was two weeks before friends threw him out of their airplane over Winter Haven airport. Not many people get an air-show memorial service, but Don had his own way of living, so it seemed appropriate to send him off this way.

The memorial service took a few hours as pilots stood in the hangar and shared stories until they wept and sat back down. Grown men, pilots who had survived combat, guys who didn’t flinch during an engine failure or at the smell of smoke in the cockpit, buried their faces in handkerchiefs. The Quiet Birdmen sniffled. Don, one man announced, had flown in the Berlin airlift in WWII. This amazing, beloved, gentlemanly flight instructor had guided me through the hurricane season in central Florida one flight at a time. And he never said, “You did that well for a girl.”

planes in missing man formationHe taught me loops and rolls, spins, stalls, and emergency procedures, none of which frightened me as much as standing in front of his peers to praise him. As a writer, I was elected to speak on behalf of his students. I stood behind the podium to hide my quaking knees to deliver the eulogy.

“Don loved to fly. He said he knew he wanted to fly the first time he saw a plane overhead. He wanted to be in the sky and he believed he could fly. He flew for fun, for the joy of being airborne in  loops and rolls and spins. He flew for his country with honor and distinction. He talked about planes and looked at planes with a passion women envied. He measured his time in the sky not in hours, but in logbooks. He flew to teach others, to pass along the skills and–whenever possible–to pass along that passion.

“I was one of his students. I hear his voice when I fly, reminding me step by step, to reach for professionalism. In five years of flying with him, I heard him raise his voice only once. He was teaching me the differences between a Cessna 172 and a retractable-gear 182. We had just landed and were taxing to the ramp when he reminded me to open the cowl flaps. I had put my hand on the gear switch.

“He didn’t scare easily, but I did embarrass him once. We were headed to St. Petersburg airport and Tampa approach gave me instructions at auctioneer speed. Don had often told me to loosen my grip on the yoke and to lighten up about flying. So I did. I asked approach to slow down and give me the instructions in blonde speed. Approach spoke slowly and distinctly. Don then told me we would not be stopping in St. Pete for lunch because he didn’t want anyone to know he was in the plane.

“Don loved to fly so much he and his friends built a Murphy Rebel. Flying wasn’t his hobby or part-time job. Flaying was his passion and now part of his legacy. Our lives are better because Don replaced our fears with abilities and our doubts with knowledge. Now when planes fly over, we can look up and remind ourselves, that thanks to Don, the world is bigger. We can fly.”

After the hanger service we gathered outside under the blazing Florida sun and enjoyed an easterly breeze. We, his students, were part of his legacy. While we waited for a memorial fly-by in the missing-man formation, we swapped stories. Don made 77 seem young. He lived with gusto.

Don believed in reincarnation, which prompted one gruff-voiced pilot to say, “I guess he’ll have to come back as a bird.”

“Have to be an eagle,” another pilot said. All agreed.

“Well,” a fellow Christian pilot snorted, “I wonder what he’ll say to God when he gets to heaven.”

Three of us answered in unison, “When can I fly?”

All heads turned toward the sound of the approaching planes in the bright blue sky. Each plane represented part of his aviation career: a military trainer, a seaplane, the Cessna 173 he owned and the Murphy Rebel he had helped build but never flew. Of course, Don’s ashes were loaded into the Murphy Rebel so he could finally ride in it. His ashes were mixed with a pound of flour for better visibility. The Murphy Rebel had taken six men seven years, two marriages, $60,000, one heart surgery, and umpteen thousand cigarettes to build. Originally Don had been designated as test pilot for the maiden flight by vote of the partners because he was the oldest.

Instead Skip Komlodi, the second oldest of the builders, had served as test pilot. Rumor had it the microphone was keyed on during the first landing and everyone tuned to the frequency heard language forbidden by FCC rules. When asked about it, Skip said he could neither confirm nor deny the use of profanity during the test flight. The men made a few adjustments to true out the plane in time to fly it for the service.

Don’s grandchildren pointed out the approaching planes with enthusiasm.

As the planes reached mid-field, one broke away. This missing-man formation was impressive in that such dissimilar planes could maintain formation. Suddenly, the ash and flour mix shot out of the plane. The wind spread the mixture in a great plume toward us, sending us scrambling back to the hangar.

“Leave it to Don to deliver one last lesson,” I whispered to Skip.

Skip grinned.

Don’s son asked, “What lesson?”

“Pay attention to wind direction.”


Post Script

The first aviation article I ever published was in the prominent (Airplane Owners and Pilot’s Association) AOPA Magazine. After Don read my praise for him in the article, he gave me a hug. Click here to read that article.

Don Thomas Kohler

(6-1-23 to 6-5-2000)

 

Six Percent Sound Off

SIX PERCENT SOUND OFF

Cessna Centurion 210

This is me with my favorite plane.

Let a headset mess your hair,

Break a nail, you don’t care,

You have earned the right to fly.

Goodbye roads and hello sky!

High wing, low wing, try them all,

Aerobatics have a ball.

If any man should give you flack,

Check your six, I got your back.

 

Only six percent of pilots are women. I wrote this to a pal when she earned her wings. She said to share it. So to my sisters in flight, whatever you fly, this one’s for you, too!

 

Six percent.

This is hubby’s favorite airplane. I am his co-pilot.

Triple Tree Fly-In near Greenville, SC

North pavillion

North pavillion

The 7th Annual Triple Tree Fly-In near Greenville, SC, will be held from September 4th to 8th, 2013. This is not your port-a-potty and picnic table kind of fly-in. No, siree. As a veteran of five Triple Tree Fly-Ins, I enthusiastically recommend it for the southern hospitality of everyone involved. In rain and shine, I’ve had fun at Triple Tree.

First of all, the Triple Tree Aerodrome (SC00) has a grass runway (03/21) with a tower manned by FAA volunteers from Greenville, SC., for special events. Pat Hartness, retired CEO of Hartness International, bought the tower for $100 from a nearby military airfield and had it cut into quarters from top to bottom and reassembled on the Triple Tree airstrip. He won’t tell me how much that effort cost.

South pavilion overlooking lake

South pavilion overlooking lake

Secondly, surrounding the grass strip lies 400 acres of lush camp ground, two small lakes, a wooden pavilion on the south end of the field,  two wooden restroom buildings with granite counter tops, and a large masonry building on the crest of a hill overlooking the north lake that has a walk-in fireplace and kitchen manned by an army of friendly volunteers.

Owned by Pat and Marylou Hartness, the Triple Tree Aerodrome is best known for hosting radio-controlled airplane events that features one quarter-, one-third and even half-scale models. (The power to weight ratio is off the scale for these models.) The September fly-in is referred to as a full-scale model event.

Pilots from KGIF

Pilots from KGIF

Pat Hartness has a hangar full of radio-controlled airplanes on display at the south end of the field near the larger of the two lakes and the large pavilion where the Saturday night BBQ is held on a bluff overlooking the field. His full-scale toys are also kept there when he doesn’t need the hangar for concerts and parties.

Greenville Jet Center supplies a fuel trailer and a van for the event. The local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol volunteers manpower and a VHF Comm Radio for the control tower. Vendors offer food, souvenirs, and some airplane supplies.

Hands-on workshop

Hands-on workshop

And for those pilots who want hands-on workshops, come to the south pavilion behind the hangar. Wherever you go on the field or in the pavilions enjoy hangar talk, tall tales and the company of like-minded aviation enthusiasts.

Fishing, hiking, karaoke and cookouts around the lake make this a fun family getaway. On occasion the Fly-In offers a day tour to nearby shopping areas, and plantations.

Triple Tree Tower

Triple Tree Tower

Participants can camp by their airplanes at the north end of the field. The larger curved lake at the south end of the field can accommodate sea planes. Those wishing to bring campers or recreational vehicles can park near restrooms and showers at the south end of the field where there are limited power hookups. Tent camping and self-powered trailer camping falls under the trees at the north end of the field. Walking on the landing strip is not allowed for safety reasons. For those who prefer to stay in hotels, see the website for local listings. For more information, such as approach procedures and frequencies, hotels and camping info, see the website: http://www.tripletreeaerodrome.com/triple-tree-fly-in.php.

N661DJ

RV-6 N661DJ

Hubby and I will be arriving in a red and white RV-6, N661DJ. See you there!