This story was published by The Providence Journal in its short-lived HERs section, a weekly dedicated to woman readers, in December 1998. It won the 1999 Max Karant Award for Excellence in Aviation Coverage, taking first place in the print category.
You are leaning forward, into a hard wind, your arms open wide, like wings.
You lift one foot, and then the other, and a force like a muscle pulls you up into the sky -- where you spin and slip and tumble and play in the welcoming air, and where you feel more at home than you ever did with your feet on the ground.
This is our universal dream. Most of us wake, and let it go. Some of us wake, and go in search of altitude.
Among the women who begin that search, a few will find it leads to an airport, and an instructor, and an airplane. The woman climbs into a cramped, cryptic cockpit; she taxis the balky airplane clumsily across the ramp, then races down a black runway and, her right hand gently resting on the throttle and her left hand smoothly pulling back the yoke, she lifts the wheels off the ground. And that is the end of her dream-driven search, and the beginning of her exploration of the sky.
For every woman who flies, the adventure is unique. It can be a test against the elements, a means to share a vision, the ticket to travel or a career, or as simple as following her heart's desire.
Marianne Douglas, of Barrington, is 48, and she can't remember a time in her life when she didn't yearn to fly. As a child growing up near North Central Airport, in Smithfield, she fell in love with airplanes and everything about aviation, including space travel. She wrote essays in grammar school like "Why We Should Support NASA"; she informed her parents early and often that she knew what she wanted to be: an astronaut, a pilot, or an actress. Or, preferably, all three.
Even after she'd followed her parents' advice and become a schoolteacher in Bristol, those dreams wouldn't fade. Douglas also became an actress, and toured in the summers. She applied for NASA's Teacher in Space program, and taught her high-school math students about rocket science. After school, she would park her car by the fence at T.F. Green Airport, and correct papers to the sound of engines and the smell of exhaust.
But as her grownup life settled into work and marriage and home, with never any extra money, her dream of flight began to seem only a dream. All that time, she now says, "I never thought to myself it was something I could do."
But one day, finally, it was. Douglas had just completed five years off from teaching to work with a children's theater company -- Providence's Kaleidoscope Theater -- and had decided to go back to the classroom: this time with a renewed sense of mission, a confidence that she had something to offer these kids, to help them follow their own dreams. During this time, in 1989, she held a yard sale one day, and found herself with an extra $100; she decided to take it to Green Airport. She paid to go up in a little airplane, on a scenic flight, and that was that.
Now, Douglas is co-owner and president of a flight school based at Green, called Horizon Aviation. At long last, she says, "I had no more fence to look through -- I had the keys to the door." After teaching school in Bristol, she goes straight to the airport -- every day, for a 12-hour workday. "It can be overwhelming," she says. "I have to be careful to keep the balance." But it's worth it. "You gotta do the things you love."
At Horizon Aviation one afternoon, four people crowd around an old desk and Douglas wears a big smile. "One of our students just soloed -- that's why we're all so rowdy!"
Douglas and her two partners are in the business because they love it. Camaraderie is something they particularly value.
"Pilots need other pilots," says Douglas. "We all come from families who don't necessarily understand what we're doing." By contrast, she says, "Everyone who comes through this door has the same fascination."
For Iris Dewhurst, of South Kingstown, the dream of flight has taken a different shape. For Dewhurst, the open sky is a place that challenges her, a place where skills, concentration and judgment are rewarded -- a place that appeals to her sense of competition. She wants to fly better each day than the day before, and she wants flying to be tough; she wants to be the best.
Dewhurst is 54 now, and she started flying 12 years ago. She had always had an interest in airplanes, even wanted to join the Air Force, but growing up in England in the 1950s, "that just wasn't done. I got the application papers," she says, "and my parents threw them in the fire."
Dewhurst came to America in 1980, and raised two children with her husband, a professor of engineering at the University of Rhode Island. Once the children were grown, she had the time, the opportunity, the money: "This is it, I'm gonna do it!" She joined a flying club at Quonset Airport, and soon had a pilot's license in her pocket.
Then she began to look for more challenges. She earned her instrument rating -- learning to navigate by the cockpit gauges -- so she could fly even in poor visibility. She and a friend, Norma Hagist -- at 71, she's been flying for 20 years -- began flying off for lunches, then exploring farther and farther afield -- "just to see the country." Soon they were taking trips to Texas, Michigan, South Dakota, in little airplanes that don't go much faster than a car on the freeway.
A few years ago, they heard about a cross-country air race for women that would be finishing in Quonset. The annual Air Race Classic (originally called the Powder Puff Derby) is a chance for women to test their flying skills in a grueling, four-day, 2,500-mile race. Every year it follows a different course.
Dewhurst and Hagist couldn't resist signing up. In that very first race, with Hagist navigating and Dewhurst at the controls, they finished at the top of their category.
Dewhurst has been back every year since, except last year, when her daughter's wedding interfered: a total of five times with Hagist and once with her daughter, Claire, 25, who is also a pilot. This past summer, Dewhurst and Hagist raced from New Mexico to Ohio, then flew home to Rhode Island.
"I would LOVE to win it!" says Dewhurst of the Air Race Classic. "I'm very competitive."
To shave seconds off their time, she scrubs down the plane at every fuel stop -- "those dead bugs, you know, slow you down" -- and flies with all the vents closed, despite the heat that builds up in the cockpit in the June sunshine. "Once I had to throw water on Norma -- I thought she was going to pass out!" She will fly as low as 200 feet above the ground, if that's where the best tailwind is -- and that's with the airplane going as fast as it can, just a little over 120 mph.
On a clear, cold winter afternoon, Dewhurst invites me up for a flight from the tiny Richmond Airport, where she keeps her airplane. Her husband, Peter, has also learned to fly, and they have bought "a Piper Dakota, 235 horsepower, with a variable-pitch prop," she tells me very matter-of-factly in her slightly English-accented voice.
"It's a challenging airport to fly from," she says of Richmond. The lone runway is short, narrow and surrounded by woods. But it keeps her sharp.
In the cockpit, she is focused and deliberate. She follows a checklist: "Clear!" she calls out -- the engine roars to life, the propeller spins, barely out of arms' reach. She checks the gauges: "Green, green, green." After all the checks and tests are done, we're on the runway, we sail into the sky, and the ocean appears off our right wing. Rhode Island's southern coast spreads out beneath us like a map. Flying east, we cross Worden Pond; we can see Block Island, Narragansett Bay and the barrier beaches.
Dewhurst levels out at 2,000 feet. She is constantly busy, monitoring each instrument and gauge on the instrument panel, scanning the sky for traffic. We look down on the earth like angels -- all that was hidden from us, behind the trees during our lowly life on the ground, is revealed to our roving eyes.
To Dewhurst, the featureless sky is full of obstacles -- full of signs of change invisible to the earthbound. She searches for the Tiverton tower, the one that reaches up 1,200 feet to trip unwary pilots. She knows that Green's airspace extends to the Jamestown bridge, she knows where the air traffic is likely to go. She points out where little airports used to be; and which of the few that remain has the best coffee.
As we line up with the runway to land, the airplane seems reluctant to leave the sky. "On a cold day like this," says Dewhurst, "the plane doesn't want to come down, you see, that's the trouble." Then she makes a perfect landing.
For Stacy Nimmo, 18, of Richmond, nothing stands in the way of choosing aviation as a career, a way of life. And that choice for her seemed preordained. Her grandfather Joe Parente was a glider pilot in World War II and later flew helicopters, and when Nimmo was 15, he took her up in an airplane.
"I just fell in love with it," she says, her blue eyes shining. "I loved everything about it." She soloed at 16, and now has her pilot's license. "I like every aspect of it, even reading about the weather, learning about the engine, all the technical aspects. I can tell you everything about a Tomahawk," the tiny two-seat, bubble-top airplane that she flies.
Nimmo credits her instructor, Bob Danis, at North Central Airport -- an old friend of her grandfather's -- with having the patience and "nerves of steel" to help her make it through training. "I'd be diving this Tomahawk into the runway, and he'd calmly say, 'Uhh, you might want to pull up now.'"
Her grandfather was even more excited than Nimmo on the day she passed her flight test, she says. And he died, she says sadly, just a few weeks later.
Now Nimmo's a freshman at the University of Rhode Island, where she's studying mechanical engineering and working about 20 hours every weekend at the Nordic Lodge restaurant. Once a week she drives to Storrs, Conn., for Air Force ROTC. Her future, she has decided, is with the military.
"The ultimate would be to get into flight training and fly an F-16," says Nimmo, but she knows she will have to beat out fierce competition to pilot the fighter jet. But she also knows that in the Air Force at least she'll stay involved with aviation, one way or another.
Nimmo's parents support her decision to fly. "My dad thought it was incredible," she says. "I took him on a flight, and he's like, 'Wow, my daughter is flying!' And my mom's been around airplanes all her life, so she's fine with it."
With ROTC fully integrated, by race and gender, Nimmo shakes her head and says that being a woman is simply not an issue. She is only annoyed that in some physical tests the standards are lowered for women, which she thinks is unfair, but she accepts it as the way things are. She likes the military life: "You get opportunities -- you get to meet all kinds of people that you never would" otherwise. "It's chaotic, but fun."
Sandy Niles, 42, is a captain with New England Airlines, a company whose bread and butter is the Westerly-Block Island route. The airline's various small propeller planes each carry one pilot and five to nine passengers.
"It's the best part-time job in the world," says Niles. "Not the best paying. ...
"When you fly for a little airline, the pilot is responsible for everything. I have to check the weather, manage the fuel, monitor the loading of the airplane and weight and balance, and deal with equipment problems. It sure is interesting. I love it."
Niles, who lives in Westerly with her husband, has a full-time job in graphic arts, but she flies as much as she can. She got into aviation more or less by serendipity: "Always wanted to. Didn't think I could. I thought you had to have perfect eyesight -- and I didn't -- and had to be extremely rich -- and I wasn't. Then one day I met a man, an acquaintance, who had his own airplane, and he told me I was wrong.
" 'Did you know you can buy a used airplane for what you'd pay for a car?' [he said]. 'Did you know you don't need perfect eyesight?' So I came to the airport and took an introductory flight."
That was in 1984, at Westerly Airport. Two years later, Niles had her license and her own airplane. Two years after that, she won a scholarship and earned her commercial license and a multi-engine rating. Now she's working toward the top rating -- airline transport pilot, or ATP -- so she can fly New England Airlines' bigger airplanes, the Islanders. For now she flies the single-engine Cherokees.
Does she encounter negative attitudes from passengers who aren't used to seeing a woman in charge of their airplane? "Rarely," she says, "and half the time I think they're kidding. The most important thing is to wear the right uniform," she jokes. "Even then, I've been walking out to the plane with my passengers, in my uniform, and they look around and go, 'Where's the pilot?' "
But more often, says Niles, if passengers are concerned about anything, it's the small size of her aircraft. "You get some people who are afraid -- they've never been on such a little airplane. Most of them get off the plane saying, 'That was the neatest thing I ever did.'"
Niles savors the adventure. "Every flight is different, even if you're flying the shuttle back and forth to the island. You give a briefing, load the bags; you're responsible for the manifest, to stay in radio contact. On charter flights, which are longer, you can get to know the people. They fly from New York instead of driving and then getting on a boat -- they look down at the traffic and laugh.
"The flying we do is pretty demanding -- sometimes I don't have time to eat. Once I did 17 takeoffs and landings in one day," she recalls with a grin.
Not everyone Niles crosses paths with approves of her flying career. "Few people are neutral about this -- they either think it's amazing and unattainable, or they think you're crazy. ...
"I'm not weird. I knit sweaters for my granddaughter, I cook, I sing in the chorus, I have a husband. You don't have to be weird to be a pilot.
"People still will get off an airliner, and see the pilot and remark, 'Oh, it's a woman' or 'Oh, it's a black.' We aren't really free until its just all people."
Geneva Urquhart, 44, of Providence, is a private pilot. She works two jobs, teaching at Central Falls Junior-Senior High School and at the New England Institute of Technology. One winter day, sitting in the Coffee Exchange on the East Side's Wickenden Street, she talks for hours about flying. She flies out of Green Airport in a Cessna 172, a gawky little airplane with Hershey-bar wings and a long, skinny tail.
Nobody ever introduced Urquhart to an airplane. Flying was something she discovered on her own, simply by living in the world and looking around.
"I was in my 20s," she says, "and one day I just saw a plane in the sky, and it was such a beautiful thing, and I thought, 'I would like to do that, I would like to fly a plane.' And I just knew that if I never did it, it was something that when I got to the end of my life, I would regret."
She longed to try her wings, but: "It was babies, babies, babies, working, working, working... I wanted to do it before I was 40 and I did -- I soloed just before my 40th birthday. I had three kids to support, two jobs, a house, and I went to the airport with my credit card," she says.
And from there, it didn't get any easier. Some pilots will try to tell you they were born to fly -- they have no fear, no difficulties, no frustrations. Not Urquhart. It was tough -- all those maneuvers to master, all that studying, all that fragile space between her and the solid ground -- and she is not ashamed to admit it.
"One of the first times I was flying, my instructor said, 'The plane's not going to fall out of the air,' and those were the most comforting words to hear," she recalls. Her whole posture shows the anxiety, the tension she felt, and then the relaxation as she started to be comfortable in that strange space inside the cockpit.
"I took it in little pieces. I don't feel that arrogance, like, I am woman-pilot! Ta-da! ... My instructor, Joe Ryan, believed in me. You don't think you're ever good enough. But one day he told someone, 'She's a much better pilot than she thinks.' And I knew I could do it."
Part of Urquhart's confidence in herself came from the examples all around her of other women -- women like her, who had accomplished so much.
"I love to hear other women on the [aircraft] radio ... Women have been doing these things, flying dangerous missions, working on airplanes, but we never get our due. If they can do it, I can do it.
"When I was learning I read a lot about Bessie Coleman, the first black female pilot. I researched everything that she went through. And I thought, I can do that! She was so determined, she had to go through so much more than I did to be allowed to fly, and she did it. I read a lot about her, and I drew strength from her."
There were times during her training that Urquhart needed that strength.
"Once, I landed hard, and it set off the ELT [crash alarm]. I thought I had knocked the wings off the plane! And all these cars and these people come out to me. But Joe, my instructor, said it was okay, and I went right back up."
And she kept going up, until she passed her final flight test and graduated to private pilot. Now she can fly whenever she likes, without her instructor along -- just her and her airplane -- exactly as she thought it should be on that day 20 years ago when she looked up into the sky.
"My favorite thing is just to fly to Hyannis and back. I know the way -- there's this little lighthouse, and this spit of land -- and I can land there, do a touch-and-go and come back, and I'm happy: I did it!
"It's the most beautiful thing in the world. I ask myself, do I need to keep flying? But then I see an airplane and fall in love again."
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Published in The Providence Journal, HERs section cover story, December 17, 1998. Copyright 1998 Mary Grady. Photos by Mary Grady, except Stacy Nimmo from The Providence Journal.