Aerobatic pilot: Cecilia Aragon

Aviation took her from fearfulness to ‘Flying Free’

What does it take to lift a woman from being afraid to ride in an elevator to becoming a nationally ranked aerobatic pilot? In Cecilia Aragon’s case, it was a flight in a Piper Cherokee—a flight she sometimes can’t believe she agreed to take.
Photography by Rick Dahms

“I was the one of the most fearful and timid and quiet people you have ever met,” Aragon said. “I had so many phobias.” She couldn’t ride an elevator, talk on the telephone, or stand on a ladder. Yet, in 1985 she accepted an invitation from a co-worker at a Silicon Valley tech company to take a flight in his flying club’s Cherokee. Once they took off to tour the San Francisco Bay area, she recalled in her 2020 book, Flying Free: “My heart lifted. I was smiling so hard the muscles in my face ached.”

That day was symbolic of what Aragon terms the “domino effect”: a series of events in which the initial decision to push over one domino—in this case, saying yes to the flight—keeps the momentum going as each domino falls. But it wasn’t as easy as simply knocking over one domino. Once she had committed to learning to fly, each day she had to continue to confront her fear—sometimes by promising herself only that she’d drive to the airport and step into the airplane.

“I was not a good pilot, but I became an excellent pilot,” Aragon said. She started learning aerobatics as a CFI after she had to recover from a student pilot’s inadvertent spin. She flew competitions in a stock Pitts S–1T. The small taildragger could not outfly the high-performance Extras and Sukhois and CAPs, but Aragon used an algorithm to maximize her scores against them. By 1991 she had qualified to join the U.S. Unlimited Aerobatic Team—the first Latina to earn a place—and earned Bronze medals at the U.S. National Championships and the World Aerobatic Championships.

Today Aragon is a professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, which she said is a dream job she would have not have had the courage to pursue had it not been for the confidence she learned as a pilot. She continues to flight instruct and teach aerobatics, and she particularly enjoys working with fearful students. “One of my students called me up after 10 years and said he’d gotten his instrument and commercial and he said, ‘I never would have gotten my ratings unless I had you as a first instructor because otherwise I would have been too scared,’” she said.

Email [email protected]

Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman

AOPA Technical Editor
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who is part-owner of a Cessna 182Q.

Related Articles