Resuming the journey: A pilot's return to flight

March 20, 2012

Kathy Dondzila

After a nine-year hiatus, Kathy Dondzila is climbing back into the left seat of a general aviation airplane—all in preparation for some flights in Alaska this summer.

The flying adventures documented in the popular TV series Flying Wild Alaska bring to mind my own first flights in the spectacular vast interior of Alaska. The challenges the Tweto family and the regional airline, Era Alaska, face are serious and thrilling. My story is different, but not without its own challenges and thrills.

In 1975 I was living in the tiny town of Tok, Alaska (population 350). Friends of mine, Dwayne and Carolyn King, missionaries with Central Alaskan Mission (now Send International Missions), were based there at the time. Dwayne, a pilot, invited me to fly with him to Tetlin, an Athabascan Indian village about 20 miles southeast and a gorgeous flight over the rugged mountains. At the time there was no road into Tetlin—the Tanana River offered a way in and out by snow machine in winter or boat in summer, but by far the most popular transportation was general aviation airplane. Air taxis ran routinely. My first GA flight was technically in the spring, but there was still snow on the ground, and my first landing was on skis—nice and smooth on the snow-packed runway. I had no idea, then, how skilled Dwayne’s piloting was as he gently put the airplane down on the short, soft, snow-covered runway. I just knew I liked it!

During the brief weeks of summer, he changed the skis to tundra tires and told me to prepare to bounce on the rutted sod (I think it’s gravel now)—and it all seemed quite normal to me. We made many trips between Tok and Tetlin over the course of a couple of years, sometimes bringing my Samoyed Husky, Boris, along for the ride. Dwayne taught as we flew—talking to me about the flight controls, demystifying the engine and instrument gauges, and pointing out emergency landing areas. He even let me fly when I wanted to.

A couple of years later, I met and married my husband, and we left the land of Northern Lights to finish college on the East Coast. I graduated the following May, just three days before the arrival of our son. Four more little blessings followed in the next five years. During those baby years, my husband took flying lessons and regaled me with stories. I called him “Captain” and envied his flights, but my life was fully focused on toddlers and ABCs. A decade later, when the youngest went to school, I set out to find work outside the home. That’s when I interviewed and was hired at AOPA.

Kathy Dondzila in 1990Working at AOPA has some wonderful perks, including the opportunity to learn to fly. A co-worker took me for a local flight, and logged it for me in a brand new logbook on Sept. 16, 1990. I was as captivated as I had been so many years earlier, and wanted to take lessons. I began flight training in earnest the following May. It’s no easy task learning to fly, and working with a group of aviation experts added some extra accountability to the experience. While I didn’t have TV cameras capturing my bloopers like Ariel Tweto does, there was plenty of discussion about the bad landings, and the times I was “unsure of exactly where I was.” On the other hand, the encouragement, camaraderie, and guidance of my pilot co-workers helped me persevere through the tough times. I soloed in November and earned my private pilot certificate in May 1992, a year after I began lessons.

Life events got very big over the next decade: A divorce morphed me into a single mom raising five very active kids as they moved through middle and high school. I chipped away, as time and energy allowed, on an instrument rating. After several starts and stops, I decided to wrap it up in a final effort in a one-week course at GATTS (General Aviation Training and Testing Service), earning my instrument rating in April 1999. That summer, I remarried my ex on what was one of the happiest days of my life. Sadly, our happily-ever-after bubble burst fifteen months later with the devastating news that he had cancer.

I stopped flying. He fought the disease for four years, amazing family and doctors, but went home to be with the Lord in July 2005. I stayed on the ground, adjusting, working, revising plans. My last logbook entry shows a flight review in January 2003—nine years ago. I thought my flying days were long over. But, as it turns out, they’re not. I have an unexpected, fantastic opportunity.

Dwayne King, that missionary pilot friend from decades past, had (unbeknownst to me) been an AOPA member all these years and contacted AOPA for some information a couple of years ago. I overheard the call as a nearby coworker handled his request. We reconnected over the phone with a promise to get together next time he and Carolyn were in the Lower 48. That happened a few months ago over the holidays, while they were in the area visiting family. They caught me up on what they’ve been doing.

Kathy DondzilaIn 1999, Dwayne and his son, David, founded Kingdom Air Corps to train and equip future missionary pilots in “real world” bush operations, establishing King Ranch Airport in Sutton, Alaska, as the training base. Aviation students who hold advanced ratings—commercial or flight instructor, as well as A&P mechanic certifications—spend the summer in Alaska dealing with flying conditions and maintenance challenges typical of aviation in rural, sparsely populated parts of the world. The training program culminates 300 nautical miles north near Bettles, Alaska, with two week-long youth camps in the Brooks Range. The pilots fly 10 Kingdom Air Corps aircraft from Sutton into remote Arctic villages to shuttle children for the first week, and teens for the second week.

I’ve been invited to join them this summer in Alaska, and I’ve accepted! Of course, I wouldn’t want to arrive in Alaska to do some flying without being current. So, I’m resuming the journey and returning to flight. Follow along with me as I scrape off the rust, lesson by lesson, and prepare for my Alaskan adventure.

Kathy Dondzila, is the manager of technical communications for AOPA’s Pilot Information Center. She has 300 hours total time and an instrument rating. After being an inactive pilot for nine years, she is working to get back in the left seat.