My dad earned his private pilot certificate three months before I was born, and one of the first people he took up in the airplane was my mom, who was six months pregnant with me. I joke that I consider that to be my first airplane ride.
My father flew as a hobby and logged almost 100 hours before he set flying aside to raise me and my eight siblings. By the time I had my first airplane ride that I could actually remember, I was about ten years old. My dad was no longer current, so he had a friend of his take my sister Leah, my dad and me up. Three things I remember from that flight were flying over our house, getting a headache from the headset and seeing the sun reflected off Lake Michigan.
Growing up, we went to a few local airshows here and there and my dad had a model airplane in his office. It wasn’t like I was constantly surrounded by aviation, but I always had a little tug at my heart when I’d see an airplane. I specifically remember one fly-in I attended as a little girl and I felt that tug upon seeing the tail of a Cessna. I still love airplane tails!
I wished so much that I could learn to fly. I was sure I was capable, but it was unaffordable. I never saw flying as a career so I couldn’t justify spending so much money on a hobby. So I stuffed this dream, rarely talked about it, and didn’t think much about it because if it weren’t going to happen, I wasn’t going to make myself sad thinking about it.
I often accepted things as they were and didn’t push to ask questions or to get out of my comfort zone. In my late twenties, I was learning to “dream bigger.” One weekend, I went to a retreat in Tennessee that had been organized by my mom. My job was to take care of the sales table. one evening, I struck up a conversation with a lady, Lisa Brackmann. I asked what she did for a living. “I’m a pilot for Delta,” she said, like it was no big deal.
On the inside, I was bursting with excitement and questions. Outwardly, I did manage to ask a few. Of course, I thought what she did was super cool so I asked her what it was like. I told her I’d always wanted to fly but couldn’t afford it. She asked if I had heard of the Women in Aviation, International (WAI) organization and the scholarships it offers. I didn’t even know it was a thing! She promised to send me some of their old magazines when she got home. Not only did she do that, she included $45 to pay for a membership, if I wanted!
I figured it couldn’t hurt to try, so I became a member and read every magazine that arrived from cover-to-cover. Once scholarships were announced, I applied for three; two that would help with a significant chunk of my flight training and another offered by a really cool watch company that made women’s aviator watches. I had seen these watches before and had even pinned the “Jackie in Sunset Pink” model to my Pinterest board noting, “Someday if I’m a rich airline pilot (HA!) I’ll get myself one of these.”
The scholarship from the Abingdon Company was different than the others. Instead of the standard letter of recommendation and essay, Abingdon asked for creative projects that would help promote the watch company. Plus, instead of flight training money, the company paid all expenses for the winners to come to the annual Women in Aviation conference. At that time, I was doing web and graphic design, so I used my skills and talent to produce downloadable notecards with different aviation sayings, some by women. (If you subscribe to the company’s newsletter, the cards are offered about once a year for free.)
Because I had told myself I would only pursue flight training if I got a scholarship, I was disappointed not to have earned one of the flight-training scholarships. But then the watch company’s owner, Abingdon Mullin, called to tell me I had won that scholarship! As a bonus, she asked if I’d select one of their watches as part of the award! I already knew which one and I didn’t even have to wait until I was a “rich airline pilot.” Now, I wear my “Jackie in Sunset Pink” every day as a reminder that dreams do come true.
I walked into the annual Women in Aviation conference unsure and shy. I knew no one. In my comfort zone, I had to warm up to people before I felt comfortable enough to talk to them and ask questions. Yet on that occasion, I very clearly remember thinking, “Jessica, this conference is only four days long. If you’re going to get everything you can out of it, you’re going to need to step out of your comfort zone!” So I did, very timidly at first, but those ladies welcomed me with open arms and such enthusiasm that I became bolder and bolder. I met so many amazing people! Abingdon introduced me to corporate pilots, airline pilots, mechanics, military pilots, and those with every imaginable role in aviation. I walked up and down the expo hall talking with someone at every booth, asking questions. For me, it was life-changing. By the end of the conference, I knew I wanted to try to get my private pilot’s license. Somehow, I’d find a way to fund my quest.
I saved up some money then connected with my dad’s former flight instructor, Ted Cox. Ted was a professional pilot and he taught me to be professional from the beginning. In his mind, close wasn’t good enough, but he was also so very patient with a great sense of humor making flight training fun for me. He’s become like my second dad. He too was very good at pushing me out of my comfort zone but he did so very gently. He believed in me before I believed in myself. I recently read that a leader is someone who recognizes talent in someone and pulls it out. Ted is the definition of a leader! For example, all through training he’d say things to me like, “Now when you’re a flight instructor…” I’d laugh. Me? A flight instructor?! That’s crazy!
At our flying club’s cookout about the time I was finishing my private pilot certificate, I asked Ted, “So after my checkride…” I didn’t even have to finish the question. Ted knew what I was going to say. He was pumping his arms and saying, “Yes! Yes!” He understood that I wanted to know what was to come next to continue my flight education.
Regrettably, I had to take a year off from training due to lack of funding. During that hiatus, I became involved with my local flying club, with the Ninety Nines, applied for every scholarship I could, and worked three jobs trying to save money for my instrument rating.
Just a couple of months after earning my private, Ted and I were putting away the airplane after practicing some crosswind landings. I was so happy to hear it when Ted told me that the club was going to do another free Private Pilot Ground School that year. Another club member, Jim, had taught this for years including the one I had attended the year before. Ted told me that due to some personal circumstances, Jim wasn’t going to be able to continue conducting the class. Then Ted asked, “Would you like to teach it?”
On the inside so many questions were going off. How could I? I’m not an instructor! But Ted asked if I wanted to! Did I? I was scared. I’d have to stand up in front of a bunch of guys and teach them how an airplane engine works when I was sure they knew a lot more about engines than I. Part of me wanted to say no, but a smarter part of me knew this was another growing moment. Then Ted added, “I’ll be there at the classes to help you if you need it. Think about it and let me know.”
I took the challenge and it brought me a whole new level of confidence – in my own knowledge, and in my ability to teach it. I taught another course or two after that one. Now, other members volunteer their time to keep it going. Later when I studied for my flight instructor certificate, the ground and oral portions were so much easier because I already knew how to teach them.
That same year, I had heard about an aviation camp for kids that another airport held. I thought it was such a cool idea and wished someone would launch one at KRCR, my home airport. Then Ted came back from La Porte one day where he had seen that aviation camp and told me how cool it was. “If you organize something like that here, I’ll help!”
Again, I was both excited and scared! I would have been more than happy to support such an endeavor and to put in work, but the thought of being the one to organize an event like that seemed daunting. I thought the worst, “What if no one showed up?”
Once again, I knew I had to try even if no one showed up. I would know that I had tried and that mattered. After developing a program and calculating how much money we’d need, Ted suggested I approach the airport board to ask if they’d consider being a sponsor. So, I presented my plan and was shocked when they gave me a budget that was three times what I thought I needed. Through this project, I learned that people are looking for opportunities to help. They are happy to help. They want to help. Our aviation camp has now been held three years in a row, and likely would have been held again this year had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic.
One big year for me was 2017. I won three scholarships, funding my instrument rating and most of my commercial. Because of the scholarships, I was able to fly cross-country from Rochester, Ind. to Dallas, Tex. in a Piper Cherokee. I needed to build time for my commercial license and I had always wanted to do a real cross-country trip. I learned about planning fuel stops, diverting for thunderstorms and flying into busy airspace. On one occasion during the trip, a rainbow appeared in front of me then appeared behind me. I like to think I flew under a rainbow.
That year, I also began flying a PC12-NG. Its owner had bought this plane when I was still working on my private license so had seen it often and would stop whatever I was doing to watch it taxi. I had thought how cool it would be to go along on a flight. I had never dreamed of flying it. I didn’t know the owner and he didn’t need a pilot, but Ted was his long-time friend, and one day he surprised us by asking Ted to teach me to fly it. I could hardly believe my ears! Though now I fly jets, the Pilatus will always have a special place in my heart. I loved flying around the country with Ted and the owner, meeting so many amazing people and seeing some beautiful places!
The next year, I won the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship through the Ninety Nines which paid for my flight instructor rating. The next eighteen months were whirlwinds of all the highs and lows that come with flight instruction. I loved my students and teaching so much. I strongly believe that flight training should be as enjoyable as possible. I knew how much I had enjoyed my own training yet I also knew how hard it was, so I tried my best to make it fun. I’ve written so many stories about the adventures I had with my students. There was the time I put a life-sized skeleton in the back of a 172 and we went flying with it. Or the time on a hot summer day when we were practicing landings and I gave my student a simulated engine failure then opened the window. He shouted at me, “Shut the window! You’re causing more drag!” I knew his PIC skills were developing just fine!
Last year, I joined a mentorship program with the Ninety Nines – the Professional Pilot Leadership Initiative. There are three phases; being mentored, belonging to a peer-mentoring group, and in the last phase you mentor someone else coming into the program. I joined because I was undecided about whether I wanted to go the corporate route or fly for the airlines. I loved the bit of corporate I was doing in the Pilatus but the airlines also intrigued me. Finally I decided to try the airlines, and my mentor really encouraged me to start applying right away.
That year, I attended the WAI conference in Long Beach and talked to someone from every regional airline represented. I was influenced by the recruiters at the SkyWest booth but especially by the people attending the conference who also happened to be SkyWest pilots, each of whom seemed to really enjoy their job. Plus, they offered a base I wanted. I decided they were the airline for me.
I did have a couple more hurdles. I needed my multi-engine rating before I could be interviewed. I tried applying for more scholarships, and of course was working like crazy as a flight instructor. I received no scholarships so I just figured I’d have to keep saving and hope that by winter, I could earn my multi- rating.
One day after giving a lesson I saw I had a text from one of the flight school owners, asking me to call when I had a minute. I was a little worried. What had I done wrong?! I called him and was told, “I just wanted to let you know that someone has noticed your hard work and wants to anonymously pay for you to get your multi-engine rating!” I was floored. I couldn’t imagine who my benefactor could be. In my shock, I don’t know what I said except that I told him to tell that person I said, “Thank you!
I started right away, and exactly five years, to the day, after my very first flight lesson, I completed my multi-engine checkride. A week later, SkyWest flew me to Salt Lake City for my interview.
Afterward, my friend Sarah and I took a quick trip to Niagara Falls in a Cessna Skyhawk (which is a pretty cool story on its own). On the way back, we had to divert into Erie, Penn. due to thunderstorms. When we landed, I listened to a voicemail from SkyWest telling me that I had a job offer!
My last hurdle was getting my multi-engine hours. I needed a total of 25 hours before I could get a class date with SkyWest. Though 25 is not many, a multi-engine plane is pretty expensive by the hour. Then I met Jim (through Steve, the examiner who had given me my CFI checkride). Jim flew quarterly trips in his Cessna 340 and for a relatively low cost-per-hour, I was able to log 40 hours flying to Spokane, and even into Canada a bit. I learned so much and thoroughly enjoyed learning a new airplane. Jim’s brother-in-law Kim was along for the trips as well. He didn’t fly but handled Jim’s scheduling. One of his favorite things to do was to chat up the pilots until he could tell the pilots thought Kim flew. Then he’d casually say, “Oh I don’t fly, she’s the pilot!” And then he would snicker at their reactions.
I started training with SkyWest in Salt Lake City on November 24, 2019. Being so far from my friends and family was another growing experience for me. The training was intense. I had been warned of the “fire hose” effect but I’m pretty sure it was more like a busted dam. However, I was impressed with the way SkyWest structured their training, and after a short break around Christmas due to a very bad case of flu, I came back and took my final test and checkride February 19, 2020!
I’d always heard of the possibility of something happening that would affect the aviation industry. Lots of people I’d talked to had dealt with the aftereffects of 9/11 and the recession. I believed them, but I didn’t expect it to hit me right out of the gate. And I am one of the lucky ones. Some of my friends, in classes behind me, couldn’t finish their training. Awaiting my IOE was an interesting experience. So many flights were cancelled – a practice that dragged on for several months. But finally on May 29, six years to the day from my first flying lesson, I was signed off!
Remember Abingdon – the amazing lady who gave me the watch scholarship? Of course I’ve kept in touch with her, and she told me last year that I needed to let her know when I had my first trip because she wanted to be on it! Given the pandemic, that wasn’t going to happen, but I still let her know so she could track me. Well, she not only tracked me, she posted on a women pilots’ Facebook group I am in, informing those who had been following my story that my first trip was scheduled that day. She provided the flight number and the link to LiveATC.net so they could hear me. I arrived at the hotel that night and was overwhelmed by all the comments of love and support from that community of ladies! They were all celebrating with me!
Remember when I said flight training should be fun? Well SkyWest check airman are just that –most especially Charlie from Salt Lake City. I’d be over in the right seat stressing trying to remember what came next, and he’d be over there in the left seat singing to himself or cracking jokes. It helped me so much. I’d take a deep breath and slow down, then things would go more smoothly after that.
The future is uncertain, of course, but I have hope. Every step has fallen into place right when I’ve needed it, and I know I am supposed to be where I am right now. I have no doubt that I will be vectored as needed – perhaps not in the way I planned, but it definitely will be another twist in this adventure I find myself on. I’ve stressed several times throughout this shutdown and I’ve learned that the best way to handle my flying, and life in general, is to enjoy what I have right now. I cannot believe this gets to be my life.
Every once in a while as I’m doing the walk-around before a flight, I look at the organized chaos of the ramp, the beautiful T-tail on my jet, feel the roar of the jet engines around me, and I have a different squeeze in my heart. Through the many people who believed in me enough to sponsor me through scholarships, instruct me, inspire me, and cheer me on, my little-girl dream has indeed come true!