May 20, 2014
Growing up with a father who worked as a captain for Japan Airlines, Patty Wagstaff always knew she wanted to fly some day. But it took an airplane crash to make her decide the time to do so was now.
“I always thought that flying was cool, romantic and exciting,” Wagstaff says. “I always said I wanted to be like Dad, but I was told girls couldn’t become airline pilots.”
So as Wagstaff grew older, she put flying in the back of her mind. But flying came to the forefront again after she moved to Alaska for a job and had to travel to remote villages only accessible by plane. The first plane she chartered crashed on take off. “No one was hurt,” she recalls, “but it made me realize the pilot was an idiot and that I could do better.”
She started flight lessons, and in 1980, became a private pilot. Her commercial, instrument, seaplane, commercial helicopter and CFI and CFII ratings followed.
In 1983, Wagstaff attended her first air show, and says she immediately knew she wanted to learn aerobatics. She purchased a Decathlon and started training, finding the best instructors she could.
Wagstaff says it takes a lot of practice and fuel to become good. But she approached it very methodically, like she would for a job, and came up with short-term goal after goal.
By 1985, five years after gaining her pilot’s license, she earned a spot on the U.S. Aerobatic Team. She competed with the team until 1996, and is a three-time U.S. National Aerobatic Champion, as well as a three-time top U.S. medal winner in the World Aerobatic Championships. She has also received countless other rewards, and in March 1994, her airplane, the Goodrich Extra 260, went on display in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Of all her accomplishments, Wagstaff is most proud of being the first woman to win the national aerobatic competition. “It was so hard to do, and it took everything I had to do it,” she recalls. “I had to dig deep to find out what I was capable of and I learned a lot in the process.”
Today, she continues to fly in air shows, and she recently started her own school in St. Augustine, Fla. where she trains students to fly for competition, recreation and airshows, as well as upset recovery. Wagstaff, a longtime AOPA member, has also been named AOPA Ambassador for 2014.
Her advice to youth is to explore the many opportunities aviation holds. “You can be a pilot, manage airports, be an air traffic controller, or design airplanes … You can take it in almost any direction you want.”
She also recommends kids go up to a pilot and ask to help whatever he or she is doing. “People in aviation like to share,” she explains. “You’ll make friends pretty quickly.”
Thomas A. Horne flies the ultimate personal turboprop. Video by Mike Fizer.
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