Pilots: Robyn Astaire

April 1, 2010

Robyn Astaire was the world’s first successful woman jockey and was honored on the cover of Sports Illustrated (July 31, 1972). But she was not satisfied being the best female jockey; she wanted to be the best jockey, period. And Astaire—nee Robyn Smith—was on her way to that lofty goal. In 1972, she was the top American-born jockey of either gender at Aqueduct Race Track. Her winning percentage that year was second only to that of Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero. “I love winning,” she says unabashedly.

When she married entertainer Fred Astaire in 1980, Robyn gave up racing thoroughbreds in deference to his concern for her safety. When he passed away in 1987, Astaire felt uncomfortably empty, without purpose.

“I didn’t know what to do with my life. I had always been so active. I wasn’t one to sit home munching potato chips and watching soap operas,” Astaire says.

Needing to fill the void, she took a battery of tests from a career-guidance counselor at the University of California at Los Angeles. He concluded that she was best suited to fly helicopters.

This was not quite what she had expected, but Astaire did have a passion for speed and considered that going faster would be an appropriate challenge. She liked the idea of trading one horsepower for hundreds. In 1989, she learned to fly the Robinson R22 she had bought for the purpose.

Astaire committed herself to flying with the same determination she had used to become such a successful jockey. In 1991 she attended FlightSafety in Dothan, Alabama, and a year later had a pocketful of fixed-wing and rotorcraft ratings (including instrument ratings in both airplanes and helicopters). She also purchased a Glasair II in which she returned to her Los Angeles home.

Her desire to become the best that she could be inspired her to earn an airline transport pilot certificate in a helicopter, and then she earned a multiengine ATP in a Douglas DC–3. She also bought an exceptionally equipped Aerostar from the vice president of Boeing. To satisfy her hunger for turbine experience, she earned type ratings in Learjets, Citations, and Challengers. She then sought and accepted employment as a bizjet pilot.

“My passion for flying continues to grow. It’s in my blood the way horseracing was. I love to go fast whether it’s out of the gate or in the air,” Astaire says with a grin.