A date with aviation

In the remarks section of my logbook entry for January 3, 1999, it simply says, “Ride for Barb – Clear and cold.” We flew for 1.9 hours, but I honestly can’t remember the flight. For Barb, this was her first flight in a plane other than a commercial airliner. For me it was part of my vetting process for potential dating partners. If they didn’t like flying in small airplanes, there wouldn’t be much of a future in the relationship.

I had moved to Houston about a year before after an overseas work assignment and returned to my hobby of aviation with the purchase of a 1974 Cessna 172. It was an airplane with good bones and, after adding several needed upgrades, it turned out to be an excellent example of its type. I was single at the time and became involved in the relatively new concept of Internet dating. It was a great way to meet people in a new place and provided access to people outside of my normal circle of friends. That is how I met Barb.

Barb was a registered nurse, and at the time was working as a nurse paralegal for a downtown Houston law firm that specialized in malpractice cases. All evidence indicated she was very successful in her work. She lived in a large house in a gated community in the southern suburbs of Houston with her son and five cats. At around five foot two and weighing barely 95 pounds, she was a mere wisp of a woman. She was educated, articulate, attractive, and in general had a lot going for her. Importantly for me, she loved to fly. She had passed her flying test with flying colors.

Over the next several months my logbook shows many trips with Barb around the Houston area. Most flights were the $100 hamburger variety, but many times we just enjoyed being in the air.

I have read how the first flight in a small airplane often plants the seed of desire in a person to learn to fly. In Barb’s case, it was less like planting a seed and more like lighting a short fuse to a powerful rocket. Within a month of that first flight, she decided she wanted to learn to fly. Not only did she want to learn to fly, but she also wanted to be a professional pilot and earn her living in the air. At first I didn’t think she was serious since she already had a successful career. I figured as soon as the reality of the cost and effort required sunk in she would perhaps get her private certificate, but abandon aspirations to turn flying into a new profession. I, however, was judging her by my own conservative lifestyle. I was soon to learn that Barb was totally serious. A slow, steady approach was just not her style.

Barb standing by airplane
Learning to fly was a mission for Barb, not just a hobby.

Barb attacked the task of learning to fly with a passion I have rarely seen. She was soon a private pilot working on her instrument rating, then commercial certificate, CFI, multiengine, etc. She sold her house, moved into an apartment and downsized her car to help pay for lessons and flying time. She soon quit her job at the law firm to commit more time to building flying time and earning what money she could as a flight instructor. She was a woman on a mission to become a professional airline pilot.

Barb was always looking for a pilot to go along with her on flights to build time and I was more than happy to help her out. One flight in particular stands out. She had rented a Piper Apache (with a Geronimo conversion) for the day and we were flying back from Aransas Pass, Texas, to Houston Gulf on July 4, 2000. While cruising at 7,000 feet and enjoying the view, I was jolted to attention by an explosive bang and hurricane of wind. The door next to me in the right seat had opened in flight.

The door only opened about two inches, but the slipstream made it impossible to close in flight. The plane was still controllable, but with the noise and wind in the cockpit we couldn’t continue the flight in that configuration. Barb kept her cool, informed ATC we had a problem and asked for vectors to the closest airport. We were vectored to Bay City, a small, non-towered airport not too far away. We were so preoccupied with the hurricane taking place in the cockpit and trying to not forget to lower the gear, I don’t believe we made a single radio call before landing.

It was only after we landed that we noticed there seemed to be a lot of people at this usually sleepy, small town airport. It turns out we had arrived in the middle of their July 4th airshow. The airshow folks were not at all happy with our unscheduled arrival, but after some discussion we closed the door, checked it twice and were once again on our way. We laughed about that incident many times and she never again let me latch the door without checking it again herself.

Her journey toward a flying career was going well. She was making steady progress, working harder than I had ever seen anyone work at flying lessons, and doing whatever she needed to do to build time. It paid off when in late spring or early summer of 2001, she was hired by Continental Express and started training for its commuter fleet in Houston. A little more than two years after making her first flight in my C172, she had been hired by an airline. She was thrilled and ready to climb the ladder of success within the airlines. I was very proud of her.

Our personal relationship bounced from romantic to friendly and back again several times, and finally settled into a good friendship. Although I admired her determination and grit, her life was just too chaotic for my more sedate temperament. Romance was out, but we were still good friends.

Continental Express RJ
The dream job with the airlines evaporated after September 11.

I would like to report that Barb is now flying 777s across the Atlantic for a major carrier, but that just didn’t happen. As with so many others who had flying career aspirations at that time, world events quickly ended those dreams. The events of September 11 hit the aviation community very hard. As someone with the lowest job seniority, Barb soon found herself unemployed with few immediate employment prospects in aviation. To make a living, she returned to nursing. Soon health problems ended any hope of her returning to flying. I don’t think she ever flew any airplane after being let go by Continental Express. As quickly as it had started, her dream of a flying career was over.

I moved from Houston to North Carolina in 2002. Being the poor correspondent that I am, I eventually lost touch with Barb. I found the true love of my life in North Carolina and didn’t think of Barb much until one day a few years ago. I was in an airport waiting on a plane when the sight of a woman pilot walking through the concourse in her airline uniform gave me the idea to Google Barb and perhaps find out what had become of her. What I found was her obituary. I was saddened to learn she had died in 2007 just one day short of her 49th birthday. The health issues that had ended her flying career had ended her life.

Now, when I think of Barb, I’m still impressed by her sheer determination to excel at flying. Her story illustrates just how powerful the lure of flight can be. Flying pulls at the souls of us ground bound creatures in a way no other activity can. The ability to soar among the clouds beckons us to risk almost everything for the chance to see the world as few have. It can become an overwhelming motivator. Flying changed Barb’s life profoundly and it continues to influence my life in more ways than I will ever know.

4 Comments

  • Sad ending, but Barb had fulfilled one of life’s greatest thrills, learning to fly. She took life in big chunks, putting in much in her short 49 years. Reminds me of those WASP women that defied the traditional and showed that women often are much more than equals. Not only do they make new paths, but they excel at it. Thanks for sharing!

  • Thanks for the comment. Taking life in big chunks is a good description of how Barb lived. A mutual friend called her “Bazooka Barb” or just “Bazooka” for short due to the powerful way she attacked life.

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