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Pilots: Jeanne Reed

Jeanne Reed did not always love flying. In fact, until a few years ago, airplanes scared her nearly to death.

Jeanne’s husband, Pete, on the other hand, has always loved aviation. He learned to fly soon after they were married, and when he wasn’t working as an aeronautical engineer for General Electric in Cincinnati, he restored Stearman biplanes. Pete had also been a partner in several airplanes over the years and spent most of his weekend hours at the local airport.

Jeanne enjoyed the social atmosphere of the airport and would come out and visit on weekend evenings, but she never wanted to go flying. “I was afraid something would go wrong, and we”d crash, and there would be nothing I could do about it,” she says. She did take occasional trips with her husband but would spend the whole flight gripped in white-knuckled fear. When Pete flew her to the Bahamas, she had to take a mild sedative before she could get in the airplane.

Then in 1988, Pete was diagnosed with diabetes and had his medical certificate rescinded. “I’ll never forget the look on his face when he walked into the room holding the [Federal Aviation Administration] manual and found the section that told him he couldn’t fly anymore,” she says. “He was just devastated.”

Despite her fear of airplanes, Jeanne began to contemplate taking flying lessons. If she got her certificate, Pete could still go flying with her, even if he couldn’t fly alone anymore. They sold their classic five-passenger Cessna 195 and bought a small Piper J-5 Cub, which was a more suitable training airplane. “There was some discussion among our friends as to whether I should learn in a nosewheel or tailwheel airplane, but with Pete’s love for old airplanes, there was never any question that I was going to end up flying a taildragger,” Reed says.

After a little searching, Reed managed to find an instructor who could teach in a tailwheel airplane and was patient enough to take on a student who was very scared of flying. “The first thing I had to do was make up my mind to give it my all and not be the scared little wife,” she says. “One of the main things my instructor kept stressing to me was that you can’t be afraid of the airplane. You have to be in control of it.”

The first few lessons were rocky, but Reed soon discovered that she had a natural feel for controlling an airplane. She also found that, as her skill as a pilot improved, her fear of flying began to diminish. “Even after I soloed, I still had to talk myself into going flying alone,” she remembers, “but it wasn’t too long before I realized it was going to be okay.” A little more than 60 flight hours later, Reed was the proud holder of a private pilot certificate.

Much to her surprise, Reed also discovered that she actually enjoyed flying. “As soon as I began to master the airplane, it began to be fun,” she says. “Now, I get the most unbelievable satisfaction out of it.”

By the time Reed got her certificate, both of her children were in college, and she was looking for a part-time job. Because she was looking for a way to spend more time with her airplane, and Pete was out at the airport all the time anyway, she took a job as an office worker at Pro Aero, the fixed-base operation at the Hamilton/Fairfield (Ohio) airport where the Reeds kept their Cub.

In addition to her regular duties of giving pilot advisories over the radio, preparing the airport newsletter, and processing paperwork, Reed’s boss also put her in charge of an airport user group and asked her to try to think of ways to promote the flight school and general aviation. Reed and the user group first began organizing more barbecues and social events at the airport to give it a friendly atmosphere where not only pilots, but their families as well, would like to socialize. “There’s nothing worse than going to an airport and seeing all the hangar doors shut,” she says. “That doesn’t entice people to come and get involved.”

Reed then worked with a local amateur videographer to put together a video program on the career possibilities in aviation. She made appointments with the area school counselors, took a couple of line service workers and flight instructors with her, and started making presentations to local high-school students. Many of the students asked when they could come and see the facilities at the airport, and the school presentations soon evolved into a full-blown annual career day at the airport, with representatives from aviation schools, area airports, flight service stations, freight companies, avionics shops, maintenance facilities, and airlines. “It’s amazing how cheaply something like that can be done and how effective it is,” Reed says.

Reed also helped with the airport’s annual “Air Affair” air show, which in 1992 drew 25,000 people. But she derived her greatest job satisfaction from providing encouragement about flying to students and other people who came through the airport office. “So many people would come out to the airport and say, ‘I always wanted to learn how to fly,’ but were in their 40s or 50s and thought it was too late or too complicated or too expensive. I would tell them it’s not as hard or as expensive as they might think and that if I could do it, they could do it.”

Reed also began taking frequent cross-country trips with her husband, including weekend retreats to bed-and-breakfast inns and an annual trek to the Stearman fly-in in Galesburg, Illinois. Pete is currently working on another Stearman—just for the two of them—and the Reeds just traded their 3,000-square-foot home in the Cincinnati suburbs for a 970-square-foot house on their very own grass strip. The house is a little cramped, but Reed loves living on an airport as much as she loves working at one. “There is a peaceful, tranquil, mind-calming feeling about an airport,” she says. “Some people even describe it as a religious experience. I can sit and look at a runway, even though there might not be any airplanes taking off or landing on it at all, and it’s still peaceful.”

In late 1993, Jeanne took a full-time job with Airborne Express, so she now works only part-time at Hamilton Airport. But because Pete now teaches aviation mechanics to students at a vocational school at the Airborne Airpark in Wilmington, Ohio, the couple can still fly to work together whenever the weather permits. Airborne Express has even promised Jeanne a designated parking space for her Cub, which she affectionately calls Clarabell, when the company expands its aircraft ramp this summer.

“If someone had told me a few years ago that I’d ever be living on a grass strip, flying to my job at an airport, I would have told them they were crazy,” she says with a laugh. Yet now there are even times when she stops Pete from putting the airplane away in the evening because she wants to keep flying. Reed has also caught her husband’s love for preserving and flying classic and antique airplanes. “Old airplanes get in your blood,” she explains.

The transformation is remarkable. But Reed doesn’t think she is inherently a unique case. She says that a large part of her dislike for flying came from simply not understanding and not having the ability to control what was happening in an airplane. Becoming a pilot instead of a passenger made all the difference in the world. “When husbands are all at the airport wishing their wives would get involved in flying, I tell them that maybe if their wives would try it themselves—take a Pinch-Hitter course or something—they might turn out like me.”

Jeanne Reed may have hated flying five years ago, but she has become one of aviation’s biggest supporters. “I never thought I’d say this,” she admits with a smile, “but I can’t imagine my life without aviation now.”

Lane E. Wallace, AOPA 896621, is an aviation writer and private pilot who has been flying for more than seven years. She owns a 1946 Cessna 120 and is restoring a 1943 Stearman.

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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