For many pilots, the first flying lesson, “The Discovery Flight,” is the day that they fall in love with aviation. I’ve always prided myself in being a little different, and flying was no exception. For me, the day I fell in love with flying was years before I ever took my first lesson.
“One is very crazy when in love.”
When I was 10 years old, my mom jokingly asked for flying lessons for my parent’s wedding anniversary. My dad listened to my mom’s request and bought her gift certificates for two flying lessons at the local airport. When the certificates were a month from expiring – 11 months after purchase – my mom admitted that she was afraid of heights and somewhat claustrophobic. My dad couldn’t see the certificates go to waste, so he went and redeemed the first of the two lessons.
He came home that night with a huge smile on his face, a nifty headset and the complete Jeppesen Private Pilot kit. He was hooked.
Watching my dad fall in love with aviation was absolutely remarkable. He read the Jeppesen Private Pilot book cover to cover and spent every evening for months doing practice multiple-choice questions for his written exam. Never had I seen my dad with so much passion and drive, nor had I ever seen him sit still for that long! This passion he radiated soon wore off on me. I wanted to know what this whole flying thing was about.
“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”
At the ripe age of 11, I picked up the Jeppesen book off my dad’s desk and I started reading it. I learned about Orville and Wilbur, weather basics, and the basic flight maneuvers private pilots were responsible for. It was all so interesting!
I went to AOPA safety seminars with my dad and learned about the dangers of long and wide runways and how they can create an optical illusion that you’re higher or lower than you actually are. I also learned the five most common reasons General Aviation airplanes crash – one of them was running out of fuel, which I still find comical to this day.
I went on every animal rescue flight – where we would transport animals from shelters to foster homes and rescues in other areas on the country – and every brunch trip to Martha’s Vineyard that was offered with my dad in his Beech Sundowner.
I learned how to read a sectional chart on a trip to New Hampshire before he had the GPS installed in the plane; I was responsible for finding the landmarks outside and matching them to the landmarks on the sectional.
This was father-daughter bonding at it’s finest.
“If you can dream it, you can do it.”
In middle school when they asked us, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” I really had never thought about it. My big sister followed in my mom’s footsteps and got into sales and business, and I had always assumed I would do the same. When Mrs. T asked me what I wanted to do for a career I said, “business like my mom.” She said that was nice, then asked me what my dad did.
That’s when it hit me. I could fly planes like my dad – and make a career out of it.
I expressed my interest of doing this with my parents and they told me how hard it was going to be. But with some begging, they helped make my dream become a reality.
“A dream doesn’t become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination and hard work.”
What I thought was just a routine trip to see our A&P, Lou, before heading to dinner to celebrate my fifteenth birthday, turned out to be anything but routine. I stepped into the FBO and a man in a flight instructor hat and a pair of aviators was standing behind the counter.
“Hi, are you Chrissi?”
“Yeah?” I said, looking at this stranger that somehow knew my name. I looked back at my dad with curiosity and a grin.
“Hi I’m Bill Schwabenton and I’m your new flight instructor!” Bill said in what I would soon learn was his always-cheerful tone. I was smiling from ear to ear and, for the first and only time in my life, I was at a complete loss for words.
I followed Bill out of the FBO onto the tarmac at 5:36 pm – the exact minute I turned 15. I remember feeling strange climbing into the left side of the plane as I had always been on the right. Little did I know that soon I would feel right at home in the left seat.
I completed one lesson a week for a year while juggling high school and extracurricular activities – including Driver’s Education. I took my first flying lesson a month before I took my first driving lesson. My mom was always a bit concerned when I would need an adult to accompany me to the airport in a car per my learner’s permit rules, yet I was soloing to another state in a plane. Like I said before, I like to do things a little differently than most people.
“Aviation is proof that given, the will, we have the capacity to achieve the impossible.”
One year after my first flying lesson, Bill told me I was ready to complete a pivotal part of flight training. I was finally sixteen – which meant I was legal to solo and officially become “part of the club.”
“Ailerons into the wind, heels on the floor, throttle slowly, smoothly in…Rotate,” said the voice of Bill in my head. I thought, “Bill was right – the Alarus would take off in a lot less distance when he wasn’t a ‘paper weight’ in the seat next to me.”
I did my three takeoffs and three landings and taxied back to the ramp.
My family and some of my closest friends and supporters greeted me with cake and lots of photos of a day I will never forget.
“Life is a series of experiences, each one of which makes us bigger, even though sometimes it is hard to realize this. For the world was built to develop character, and we must learn that the setbacks and grieves which we endure help us in our marching onward.”
I asked Lou, the A&P at my airport, if I could help him in the mornings the summer before my senior year of high school. I wanted to learn a little bit more about airplanes in order to understand the aircraft I was flying. He seemed a bit skeptical at first, but soon learned that I was in it for the long haul. I learned so much about airplanes: from how a spark plug works to how to change the oil, tires and even mufflers on an airplane. The most important thing that I learned through this experience, though, was that aircraft maintenance was not exactly my cup of tea.
I completed my Private Pilot License shortly after my seventeenth birthday. I also applied and was accepted to my dream school – Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. As a surprise to many, I applied and was accepted into their Air Traffic Management program rather than their professional pilot track.
I knew aviation was my calling and I wanted to make a career out of it – but I couldn’t see myself as a professional pilot. Bill had always told me my radio skills were excellent and when I really thought about it, talking on the radio was my favorite part of flying. So I gave air traffic control a shot and I’m glad I did – I absolutely love it.
While I was at college, I fell in love with my school. I was surrounded by people that were as passionate about aviation as I was. Everyone stopped and watched when an airplane took off and social media would flood with updates about the Thunderbirds when they would come to town.
Although I loved my school and what I was learning, there were some stumbling blocks along the way. I discovered I didn’t really like meteorology but I enjoyed management courses. I took up a liking to Aviation Safety and Journalism while at Embry-Riddle after a few inspiring courses with two of my favorite professors. In three short years, I received my B.S. in Air Traffic Management with minors in Aviation Safety and Communication. I then created a blog, My Love of Aviation, to narrate my opinions on aviation topics.
If I’m being honest, though, there was a point along my journey where I thought Air Traffic wasn’t for me; there was a particularly brutal evaluation in our terminal radar control class where I broke down and said to myself, “This isn’t my calling. I need to find something else I can do…”
I didn’t give up. I couldn’t give up, I had too much invested in this path I chose and I needed to complete what I had started. I kept learning and found my strengths and weaknesses. I pushed through fears and self-doubt I was carrying around and finished the air traffic program just in time to move to Oklahoma City to train to become an FAA Air Traffic Control Specialist.
I start training on June 11, 2015.
“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”
-Henry David Thoreau
It was my dream. Now it’s my reality. Please come with me while I complete this journey and share my experiences and find out what it’s really like to be on the other side of the mic.
(All photos and video from the Thunderbirds show provided by the author.)