Growing up on U.S. Army bases, Amy Wasielewski always associated the distinctive sound of whirling helicopter blades with her family.
Both her dad and stepdad were Army helicopter pilots and instructors, and Wasielewski’s future path seemed set the first time she boarded a helicopter at age 3 with her stepdad at the controls.
“I knew then what I wanted to do,” she said. “But it took me a long time to figure out how to do it.”
Wasielewski, now 31, considered military aviation, but her family wanted her to pursue a career with fewer hardships and hazards. She enrolled at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, and her driving route to campus took her by Asheville Regional Airport.
“Every time I got close to the airport, my heart beat a little faster,” she said. “Flying was something I had to do, and I worked two waitress jobs to pay for flight training.”
Wasielewski transferred to Auburn University during her freshman year and studied management, and she continued to work to pay for flying. Her family also pitched in with financial support.
“It didn’t happen right away,” she said, “but eventually they realized I was actually kind of serious.”
Wasielewski got her initial helicopter training in 1999 when she won a Whirly Girls scholarship that paid $4,500 for initial training. A second scholarship from the same organization later helped her pay for commercial and flight instructor ratings. She moved to Memphis after graduation and taught in both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft—but she’s always preferred helicopters.
“You’ve got four limbs, and they’re doing four different things,” she said. “If your nose itches in an airplane, you scratch it. If your nose itches in a helicopter, you’ve got to just grin and bear it.”
Wasielewski was a full-time instructor for eight years and logged more than 1,000 helicopter and 4,000 fixed-wing hours. She encourages new flight students to bring family members to the airport and involve them in flight training from the start.
“New students need support from home, and involving spouses and kids early in the process makes it more likely that flying will become a family activity,” she said. “Kids can quiz parents on airspace and map symbols at home. And seeing how the process works makes aviation less mysterious and more accessible to them.”
Wasielewski joined a regional airline in October 2007 flying turboprop Saab 340s out of Memphis International Airport.
“The best thing about aviation, to me, is that it’s so varied,” she said. “I started flying at 19. That may seem early, but I was interested in flying since I was 3. And it’s something that will still fascinate me when I’m 100.”
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