While the fear of flying prevents some people from ever setting foot onto an airport or into an airplane, Julie Merrick of Camarillo, California, was motivated by her emotional obstacle.
Nine years ago, when an Alaska Airlines airliner crashed off the coast of the Golden State, Merrick’s fear of flying intensified, but more than anything the accident intrigued her. “I became obsessed with how and why the airplane crashed and in turn wanted to learn more about flying,” said Merrick, 39. “I developed such a curiosity to know what happens in that cockpit and what it takes to fly.”
With a million questions to ask, Merrick turned to her friend Tom Ridderbush, the person “who opened the door to flying” for her in Ventura County.
One of the first steps in tackling Merrick’s fear was a friendly flight in Ridderbush’s Cessna Turbo 182 furnished with a Garmin G1000. Along with his wife, Stacey, Ridderbush flew Merrick (in the right seat) to surprise her husband, Bob—a firefighter stationed near the Santa Monica Airport—with a visit.
After that initial flight, Ridderbush became Merrick’s mentor.
“I thought it would be fun because Julie shares my passion for flying,” said Ridderbush, who has around 1,000 flight hours. “She would always say things like, ‘I don’t want to bother you with this,’ but it was never a bother because I love talking about aviation.”
Merrick remembers when Ridderbush told her, “Just when you think you know it all, you have a flight where you discover you don’t know everything.”
“Julie had a hard time getting through the written exam,” said Ridderbush. “I explained to her that it’s not about memorizing the answer to the question. It’s important to understand why the answer to the question is correct.”
Merrick aced it. “I was so darn nervous, but I was ready,” she said. “The anticipation is so much worse than what I actually experienced.”
It took her 123 flight hours to earn her private pilot certificate on January 26, 2009, but being a safe and competent pilot was more important to Merrick than getting it done as fast as possible.
“The Hudson River crash happened around the same time I was finishing up my training,” she said. “I was a little afraid, but I told myself I know the airplane. I understand how the airplane works. It wants to fly. It’s made to fly.”
It’s with that attitude Merrick will move on one day to fearlessly earn her instrument rating. Since she and her husband own a home near the San Juan Islands in Washington, Merrick also hopes to obtain her seaplane rating so they can enjoy flying around the Pacific Northwest.
In the meantime, Merrick still has lots of questions. As a newcomer to the aviation community, she understands the meaning of “hangar talk” now. “It’s so cool for me,” she said. “In the pilot community, I can talk about flying and nobody will tell me to change the subject.”
What can you do? Make the first step by visiting the Let’s Go Flying Web site—and share it with a friend or two.