New private pilot Stephanie Stechschulte has a huge smile of accomplishment in a photo of one of her first flights as pilot in command.
But it wasn’t always the case. Before she learned to fly, Stechschulte, of Fort Jennings, Ohio, was a “panicky and freaky” passenger who wanted more than anything to enjoy flying with her pilot husband, Jason, but found herself growing more frightened each time.
“He would rent a plane and we’d go flying together occasionally as our budget would permit,” Stechschulte said. She was a little uncomfortable, but still game at first. Then, after having a daughter and a son, now 8 and 5, she said, “I was terrified. It seemed the more I flew the worse it got, instead of better. I got more and more anxious over it.”
When the children were old enough to go flying, Stechschulte tried to ease her fears by asking questions about things that seemed alarming, like the noise of the stall horn. The turning point came when she found herself crying in the backseat of the rented airplane as her husband maneuvered to land.
In 2014 Stechschulte’s husband showed her an article in AOPA Pilot. The article described Mary Latimer’s annual Girls In Flight Training Academy, which invites women to spend a week in Vernon, Texas, for free ground school and low-cost flight training. Latimer focuses on roadblocks that prevent women from reaching their aviation goals, such as lack of self-confidence. Jason encouraged Stechschulte to fly to Vernon and attend the 2014 GIFT camp.
“I was very enthusiastic at first, because I was going to learn to fly, I’d understand what was going on, I’d be in control, and I wouldn’t be afraid,” Stechschulte said.
That wasn’t quite what happened. Flying straight and level, Stechschulte would think, “This is easy enough. I can handle this.”
But, during a ground school session on stall recovery, the fear returned.
“Stephanie participated in the classroom, absorbed tons of information, and knew intellectually that her fear was irrational, but still it was overpowering,” Latimer said.
Stechschulte said she texted and emailed her husband the entire week while at GIFT: “I think I want to learn to fly. I think I want to do this. Even though I’m afraid of this part, I want to learn.”
On the final day of GIFT camp, after watching some of the other women solo, Stechschulte was disappointed in her own lack of progress. She hadn’t been able to tolerate stall recovery and hadn’t come close to soloing. Latimer took her up that day in a Cessna 172.
“She said, ‘We’re going to go fly and we’re going to go stall and we’re going to be OK,’” Stechschulte said.
When Latimer started to demonstrate a stall, Stechschulte reacted with fright. Latimer told Stechschulte she would not let the airplane do anything she could not fix. She demonstrated that the Cessna 172 would lose altitude—but that was all.
“We did about three of them,” Stechschulte said. “I felt better. It helped calm me down to realize that a stall doesn’t mean you’re going to plummet’ to Earth.
Latimer believed that was the end of the story: Stechschulte had been able to work through some of her apprehension. Latimer said she was surprised when Stechschulte got in touch a few months later to report that she was taking flying lessons—in a Cessna 172 that she and Jason had purchased. The Stechschultes keep the airplane at Van Wert County Airport in Van Wert, Ohio.
Stechschulte soloed in February 2015. She worked with two different flight instructors to overcome her discomfort with stalls and steep turns. Eventually, she says, she settled into a groove. She kept in touch with Latimer, who said she could barely believe the updates: “Could this be the same person?”
After two checkride dates in Ohio were weathered out, Stechschulte got on a commercial flight and returned to Vernon—this time to fly with Latimer as her designated pilot examiner. An accountant whose busy season is ramping up, Stechschulte said she wanted to complete the private pilot checkride before tax season provided another roadblock to success. She became a private pilot on Dec. 19, 2015.
“I would have been impressed with any private pilot applicant that flew as well as she did,” Latimer said, “but knowing her story made it astonishing.”
Stechschulte’s proudest moments were when she flew daughter Abby and son Kevin, and when her father, Steven Bowman, went flying with her.
“My daughter was thrilled to finally ride with her mommy,” Stechschulte said. “She jumped up and down and was screaming when I got my license.”
Similarly, she said Bowman was extremely proud, saying, “I can’t explain what this feels like, to see my daughter flying an airplane.”
“He was elated to see me reach that goal,” she said. “It was awesome to have passengers.”
Stechschulte said a driving force that helped her to succeed was that she didn’t want her children to grow up with the same fear she experienced. “I don’t want them to be afraid to get in the airplane,” she said. “I want them to understand it’s a fun thing to do and it can be a safe thing to do if you do it responsibly.
“I wanted to not be afraid, even if I didn’t get my pilot’s license,” she said. “I’m not afraid to get in the airplane anymore.”