To many pilots, the desire to fly lies in the urge to seek adventure, to get business done, or to set oneself apart from the crowd. There are pilots who fulfill these goals dramatically and visibly — Patty Wagstaff and her fellow airshow performers, visionaries such as Burt and Dick Rutan, and record-setting pilots like Steve Fossett.
But there are many other reasons we learn to fly, although they may not sound as glamorous — or risky. For some pilots, that thrill is as simple as evading the ground-bound traffic on the way to a vacation home or family visit. Or the physical — and transitory — joy of a perfect landing. What a person gets from flying has a lot to do with what he or she brings to it.
Linda Fritsche Castner launched Take Flight workshops to explore the connection between a person's experiences flying an airplane and his or her everyday behavior patterns. Castner, a private pilot and second-generation airport owner, was interested in any approach to introducing aviation that might attract more women to the activity.
Piloting an airplane is not a gender-specific skill, nor is there much — if any — overt discrimination within the general aviation community. But what those of us who are firmly ensconced in aviation might lack is an ability to approach the question — who becomes a pilot and why? — differently. What can flying an airplane give a person who might not be drawn to its various parts — the mechanics of the airplane, the technical challenge of dealing with air traffic control and weather systems, the goal of flying the family home for the holidays? What about flying makes us feel so good about becoming pilots, and keeps us flying in the face of financial and physical obstacles?
And how can we bring that experience to people who might not otherwise show up at the airport for a discovery flight — and not just with the goal of making them pilots, but also to increase their understanding of GA, how light aircraft work, and the myriad reasons that pilots love to fly?
Castner began Take Flight workshops in 1998 to focus specifically on these questions, with a workshop called Women Take Flight. She grew up in general aviation: Her father founded Alexandria Field in Hunterdon, New Jersey, in 1944, and Castner and her brother currently own and operate the airport. In running the airport's FBO and flight school, Castner wondered why the percentage of women she saw around the airport — out of the pilots who regularly flew there — didn't really change. She was a pilot, but figured out that she probably would not have become one had it not been on the family agenda that every child solo upon reaching his or her sixteenth birthday. Still, her love for GA ran deep and it plagued her that the pilot population on a whole wasn't increasing — along with the fact that neither was the number of women walking through her door.
She had experience running a successful special-event management company — Castner owned and directed The Magic of Alexandria balloon festival (based at the airport) from 1989 to 1998 — as well as putting on aviation summer camps for kids. She also had served as a fitness product manager for Johnson & Johnson, and she had solid academic credentials as the former assistant director of physical education and athletics at Bryn Mawr College (from 1972 to 1982), training several All-Americans in swimming and gymnastics.
The total? Castner knows some things about personal and leadership development — and the more nebulous concept of self-realization. While these might sound like topics best played out on The Oprah Winfrey Show, she has a point: To change persistent perceptions about general aviation, maybe this outside-the-box connection is just the sort of impetus we need.
Over the past seven years Castner has held eight Women Take Flight seminars in New Jersey (at both Alexandria and Trenton Mercer airports), at Lawrence Municipal Airport near Boston, and at Denver's Jeffco Airport. The two-day seminar is marketed to women as a course on self-discovery, focusing on the subject of risk taking. Castner joined forces with Sue Stafford, after putting on four of the seminars on her own, to bring greater academic weight to her studies. Stafford is an instrument-rated private pilot, co-owner of a Cessna 206H, and chairperson of the philosophy department at Simmons College, a private women's college in Boston. Like Castner, she has a deep interest in both educating women and encouraging them to stretch themselves — and she sees benefits to the aviation industry as well.
During the seminar, a group of 10 to 12 women ranging from ages 18 to 50-plus participates in classroom instruction (on key aviation concepts, as well as risk assessment and self-reliance perceptions), experiential exercises, and group discussions. The participants split into groups of two, and at the culmination of each day, the two take turns at the controls of a Cessna 172 — one flies while the other observes from the back.
The big takeaway? The understanding that the ability to successfully approach any new learning task — in this case, learning to fly — depends highly on how you think about yourself.
I contacted Castner after attending a presentation she gave in March 2004 at the Women in Aviation International Conference in Reno, Nevada. She invited me to observe the next seminar, which took place in November 2004 at Jeffco.
Castner and Stafford had hooked up with Deb Price, a flight instructor at Jeffco, at the conference as well. Price was excited by the results that the seminar had seen thus far and wanted to help expand the seminar's geographical reach. The owner of Western Air Academy (and Price's boss), Jim Burr, agreed to host the seminar. Because of the seminar's current research focus (rather than a corporate, for-profit one), conducting the seminar has required significant investment on the part of the hosts — starting with Castner herself — and the use of grant money. (Castner has received a grant from the Wolf Aviation Fund.) In the case of the Jeffco seminar, Western Air Academy donated aircraft and instructor time for the course, as well as use of its facilities.
The group of participants assembled for the Jeffco seminar included 12 women ranging from local college students to professional women in midlife. While the setting to me (as a flight instructor) was familiar — a dozen students waiting on their first ground school lesson — as the women introduced themselves, they distinguished themselves from your run-of-the-mill prospective pilots immediately. Only two had been up in a small airplane before (and of these one threw up from the experience), and a handful had an outright fear of the airplane — one had watched the fallout from a midair collision descend over her neighborhood in the western Denver suburbs the year before. None would have answered an ad for a discovery flight, no matter what the cost.
In the exercises that followed, the participants characterized their perceived risk of flying — and whether that risk was physical, mental, or sociocultural. Castner talked about techniques that athletes use to elicit peak performance, and Stafford talked about different styles of learning. The three flight instructors who would take them flying (all women in this case) were introduced, and the group asked them questions: How do you deal with a close call? How much physical strength is required? How often are the airplanes checked mechanically? How often do you go up with students?
After a short course on aerodynamics, the women went out to the airplanes to learn about the preflight inspection and how the controls worked. A wheelbarrow exercise demonstrated how it would feel to pitch, roll, and yaw. Back in the classroom, a visualization and oral rehearsal of the takeoff roll prepared the participants for their first flight.
The atmosphere for this first flight was carefully rehearsed — and probably very different from most introductory flights. Before going out to the ramp, Castner said to the group, "You put yourself into the environment, by pushing the throttle in — and you decide if you have the courage to start." In position for takeoff, the student in the left seat initiated the takeoff roll by doing just that, advancing the throttle while the instructor guided the control yoke.
Because of less-than-pristine weather conditions in the practice area, the flight consisted of an extended trip around the pattern — but it was enough to make a big impression. By focusing on her partner's strengths ("my partner is a survivor — she made it through being homeless and jobless" and "she comes from a can-do background") each woman helped teach her partner that accentuating her strengths rather than pushing away her weaknesses would enable her to meet the challenge successfully.
A young college student, newly wed, who had been holding her partner's hand for support prior to the flight, jumped out of the airplane all smiles:
"I loved that!!"
A second, longer flight on the next day — coupled with more exercises and instruction on traffic patterns, airspace, and radio communications — cemented the group's gains in confidence from the first day. In evaluating the seminar, it was clear that each woman took something both personal and practical from the experience. One woman who had been reluctant previously to let her sons fly with their uncle reported later that she had sent them off recently on their first flight. Another said that she would no longer be terrified to fly commercially because she understood how an airplane flies: "And I've flown one!" Several others expressed interest in taking lessons.
The participants also discussed the transfer of what they learned about themselves to their professional and personal relationships. After learning about airspace classifications and requirements, one attorney commented, "Wouldn't it be nice if there were signs like this in the corporate world? On boardroom doors, in meetings, outside certain offices — to be prepared when you go somewhere for what the expectations are so that you can be successful."
Castner would like to take the seminar to a corporate audience as well.
To that end, she is developing Leaders Take Flight, which will be tailored to middle- and upper-management groups (coed) and marketed as a leadership-development or team-building exercise, such as an outdoor challenge course might be.
I was so impressed by the seminar that when Castner asked me to instruct at a seminar last fall, this time at Alexandria Field, I jumped at the chance. In this seminar, women in leadership positions from around the Northeast participated, making for a natural progression between past seminars and the leadership-oriented seminars Castner will produce. Diane Raymond, dean of the college of arts and sciences at Simmons College, took part in the seminar at Alexandria, and gained so much from the experience that four more seminars are planned at Simmons this year. "The program gave me the opportunity to take a different kind of risk and explore more fully how I react to risk, how I work with a partner, and how I might take these lessons back to the workplace to become a better leader," said Raymond.
As pilots, there are several points we can take from Castner's experience. If you are in the position to introduce someone to flying, whether it be during a discovery flight or an informal first ride in your airplane, you should make the most of that opportunity for a good first impression. The more preparation you can give the person (your spouse, a friend, or a co-worker, for example) on the ground, and the more you encourage that person's questions, the better his or her experience will be. Time spent in the cockpit moving the controls, explaining the instruments, and talking the person through the outline of the flight will go a long way toward making that person feel comfortable.
If you can identify some way to give the person control over the experience — whether it's advancing the throttle or simply the explicit ability to end the flight at any time — you give him or her an important tool. Male or female, a person may assume that flying is too complex a task for him or her to participate in during the first flight, so you need to open the door.
And check your assumptions about who might make a great pilot — or a great student. No matter how you came to aviation, there are many reasons to fly beyond your own.
E-mail the author at [email protected].
If you are interested in Women Take Flight/Leaders Take Flight workshops, contact Linda Castner at [email protected].