With bags full of dreams, doubts and fears, three Holdrege moms set off on a journey to learn to fly. One sought adventure. One feared failure. One lacked trust.
The journey was tougher and harder than they ever imagined. But, with a faithful and intelligent instructor by their sides, each of the moms overcame challenges and made it to their destination. They become among the small percentage of women with a pilot’s license.
But, the end was just a beginning. The beginning of a new world of possibilities, a life of less fear and a new sense of confidence.
“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?” – Erin Hanson
Polly Pearson, 51, is a self-described adrenaline junkie. She skydives, has climbed mountains around the world, rode her bike across the country, competed in triathlons and other endurance races and loves adventure. She is the mom of three grown boys, wife of a farmer and former teacher.
“I just kind of live on the edge of insanity,” Polly said. “I needed a little bit of a challenge to push myself.”
Polly admits that she didn’t have many fears when she began her training.
But as the training progressed, she was surprised at the difficulty and had to push through the tough days of training like she would push through a mountain climb.
“I personally didn’t have a clue how incredibly complicated it was,” she said.
Ashley, 43, describes herself as the opposite of Polly. She is a former kindergarten teacher, type-A personality who likes to avoid risk and live life on the safe side. She is married to a businessman/veterinarian and is the mom of elementary-school twins and a middle school daughter
“I’m not an adrenaline junkie,” Ashley said. “I’m a very safe person. I don’t like to take risks. I don’t even like to drive to Omaha.”
However, when she and her husband purchased a plane in 2012, they agreed that one of them should learn something about flying as a back-up to their hired pilots. After three years, they decided it would be Ashley.
Toni, 34, is married to a farmer/chiropractor/businessman and has three young children. She refused to ride with her husband in his single-engine plane for the first 12 years of their marriage.
“I always told him, no,” Toni said. “I’m just fine right here on the ground.”
One day, she decided to finally join him on a flight.
“Once our wheels left the ground, I knew I had to learn to do this myself,” Toni said.
Little did she know that her friend, Ashley, wanted to learn to fly as well. When they discovered their shared interest, they decided to start the journey together.
An Expert In Their Backyard
Fortunately, the moms didn’t have to travel far to pursue their new dreams. Flight instructor and former Navy pilot Don Streeter lives in their own backyard.
Don has taught hundreds of pilots over the years. He retired from the Federal Aviation Administration, where he worked for 21 years as a general aviation and air carrier operations safety inspector and flight instructor. He also owned and operated an aviation and training business for 21 years. He “retired” in rural Holdrege in 2007 and now teaches aviation ground school at Central Community College in their small community. He also owns and manages an airplane rental service. In 2016, Don received the Department of Transportation/Federal Aviation Administration Wright Brothers Master Pilot award for his contributions to building and maintaining the safest aviation system in the world through practicing and promoting safe aircraft flight operations for more than 50 consecutive years.
Throughout Don’s years of training pilots, only 6 percent of his students have been women. That matches the national average.
Don said he would like to encourage more women to receive flight instruction.
“I’ve found the women pilots, even though they take a little longer to finish, are usually better pilots than men because they are more driven to be perfect,” Don said. “These girls scored really high scores on the FAA written exam.”
Often, he said, fear of failure stops women from pursuing their dreams. But, he said women who do accomplish the goal are great pilots.
Fear of failure almost put the brakes on Ashley’s dreams.
“I don’t want to try anything that I’m not good at, and I only want to be good at everything I do,” she said. “So, my biggest fear was failure. That I wouldn’t be able to do it or that I wouldn’t be able to finish or that I wouldn’t be able to pass the test or know the answer.”
Toni said she had many fears starting out. In addition to fear of failure and fear of something going wrong when she was in the air, she had to learn to conquer her need to be in control.
“It was sort of a faith journey for me,” Toni said. “I like to be in control of situations. I’m going to make sure this situation is safe for my kids, myself, my family. I’m going to calculate all the risks and rewards and see if it pans out. I feel like throughout my whole life I trusted God, but I held back a little for myself. I think really, truly this is the first time in my life that said let go and said ‘Ok, God, you’ve got this.’”
Toni realized that she had put in the work and Don had trained her well, so it was time to let go and trust that everything would work out for the best.
The training is intense to become a pilot. It can start with Don’s classroom instruction, as was the case for Polly. Or, it can start with an at-home study, which is what Ashley and Toni chose. The reading includes a thick FAA manual of regulations, learning about airplane mechanics and physics, and understanding air traffic communication. It continues with instrument instruction and in-flight training and solo flights. The last hurdle is a written exam and oral interview and flight test with a FAA inspector or designated examiner. At a minimum, the training takes 40 hours. But more often, it’s close to 100 hours considering the reading, studying, in-flight instruction and practice.
On the Verge of Quitting
There were times throughout the training that the each of the women wanted to quit. Toni recalls during some of the initial training learning about stress responses and experiencing that in the plane.
“Your stress response causes shortness of breath, tunnel vision, loss of memory,” Toni said. “I had all that. I was thinking I need to go home and knit!”
Toni said her philosophy has always been to finish what she starts. But, after one particularly frustrating day, she texted Don to tell him that she was giving up. But, Don knew his student well.
“I didn’t take you for a quitter,” he replied. That was the spark that kept her going that time.
Since Ashley and Toni were training at the same time, they also encouraged each other when one of them wanted to quit.
Ashley said learning to fly was one of the hardest challenges of her life.
“I decided in kindergarten I was going to be a teacher,” she said. “That was not hard for me. That career path was easy. Not that there weren’t hard things. But, not like this. This is by far the hardest thing I have done. But, it was probably the most rewarding, too.”
For Polly, encouragement from her husband and a quote she remembered from a mountain-climbing instructor kept her moving forward.
As the air thinned and the journey upward became almost unbearable on a mountain adventure in Ecuador, her instructor said to her, “Polly, how do you eat an elephant?”
Polly wasn’t thrilled with what seemed like a joking question as such a serious time. But his answer made perfect sense.
“One bite at a time,” he said. “I knew what he meant by that. But, I said, I don’t want to eat an elephant!”
When Polly would tell her husband that she didn’t want to eat an elephant anymore, he encouraged her to just take the next step.
“Whenever I’m struggling through something, I think just do the next thing rather than thinking about the long haul,” Polly said. “That’s so overwhelming.”
All three women eventually earned their Private Pilot, Airplane Single-Engine Land Certificates; Polly in 2014, and Ashley and Toni in 2017. Toni flies her family’s Cherokee 235, while Ashley and Polly fly Don’s Cessna 172.
Now that the three moms can fly, it has opened up a new world to them. Toni recently flew an injured dog to a specialist in Kansas rather than make the pet endure a four-hour car drive. Polly frequently flies her husband over his cornfields to check the crop conditions. And, Ashley recently took a friend on a fun flight to see a corn maze from high in the sky.
And, their accomplishment hasn’t gone unnoticed among their children.
Polly sees her sons modeling her adventurous lifestyle and taking risks. Toni said she has earned some “cool” points with her 7-year-old son, who also wants to fly a plane someday. And, Ashley’s eighth-grade daughter has already stated that she wants to learn to fly.
For these Nebraska moms, teaching their kids that women can work hard and achieve their dreams made the journey worth the effort.
“If you set your mind to something and you believe you can do it, anything’s possible,” Ashley said.
“Beautiful Girl, You Can Do Hard Things.”