In July 2019, I finally obtained my private pilot license. It took me seven years. Being a pilot had not been in the cards for me. It wasn’t even on my bucket list, because I didn’t like flying and had no interest in airplanes. People seem to have solid reasons why they undergo the vigorous flight training, which takes considerable time and effort. So why did I become a pilot? Here is my story.
I always considered flying a dangerous hobby, and a waste of time. That was when Ken, my late husband of 30 years, was alive. He was an airplane enthusiast, who flew single- and multi-engine land and seaplanes as well as a helicopter. He spent thousands of hours reading aviation books, making model airplanes, and going to air shows and air museums. He collected hundreds of plastic airplane models, posters, books, aircraft manuals, and war memorabilia. He once said if we visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, he could be a guide and explain all the aircraft there. I did not share his enthusiasm, and luckily for me, we never got the chance to go.
Ken was in Sendai, Japan, for business on March 11, 2011, when the tsunami hit. I was at home in Seattle with our teenager, Ren. Late at night, we learned about the preceding earthquake and a possible tsunami and turned on the TV. I recognized Sendai Airport, where Ken was supposed to be working. The image of raging water and debris crushing into the land turned me ice cold. It wasn’t the dread I felt, but rather an invisible part of me screaming and suffocating as if I were beneath the dark seawater. I knew somehow Ken had died. I could not sleep that night. A week or two later when KOMO news staff came to our house to interview the family of a tsunami victim, I collapsed and was taken to the emergency room. Ren and I went to Japan at the end of March, and identified Ken’s body on April 1st.
When your loved one dies, a part of you goes with them. Grief transforms your brain. I desperately wanted Ken to come back. I wanted to ask him what to do with his aviation collection. To reclaim a part of him, what little I could keep, I decided to learn to fly. At the celebration of Ken’s life, I made a speech in front of a hundred guests, declaring that I would get a pilot license. My friend told me recently that she had not believed me, and I wonder how many other guests had thought I was serious. How could a Japanese woman in her 50s, with no knowledge of or previous interest in aviation, become a pilot? I was still in a haze and thinking it might be a bit more difficult than obtaining a driver’s license. After all, flying is three-dimensional, right? How dreadfully ignorant!
When I finally started taking flight lessons a year or so later, I just prayed for rain or IFR weather. But as soon as I got up in the sky, I found it was exhilarating to fly. Yet it was impossible for me to take control of flying in the beginning. I had a hard time even understanding how to change frequencies. The thick Jeppesen textbook, which explained everything from the aerodynamic principles to flight regulations, was overwhelming. I just could not learn no matter how many times I read it. I am very sure a large part of my brain was paralyzed because of grief and it took me years to be able to learn new things again. However, I just pressed on. Flying was one positive thing I was doing after Ken’s death. I had given myself a goal to keep moving forward. At least when I was flying, I was away from my immediate problems or sadness, as I had to deal with my fear of dropping from the sky. The instructor was kind and understanding, which meant that flying could be a therapy at that time.
I had to take long breaks from flight lessons. After losing his only child, Ken’s father became depressed and suicidal and died within a year from a heart failure. I kept saying to myself that I had to go on. I couldn’t die before my parents because I couldn’t bear to make them suffer again. They had lost their only son, my brother, in a traffic accident in 1991. As their only remaining child, I had the responsibility to take care of my old parents. In 2016, I stayed with them in Japan and took care of my father as he was dying from cancer. He passed away peacefully at home on Christmas Day, 2016. It was not as devastating as losing Ken, as I had been mentally prepared for my father’s death. But it was another huge loss for me. He had been my life mentor. When my brother died, it was my father who showed me how to deal with the crisis, saying, “I try not to think about it.” That attitude of not brooding over the unchangeable past has helped me through my toughest times.
My father in heaven must have thought that I needed someone with whom I could live my life. Three months after his death, I met Ben in Seattle. On our first date, I knew he was the right guy for me. I felt my father had chosen him specially. Ben encouraged me to continue my flight lessons, and showed me how a plane’s engine and carburetor work. After a while, I discovered Ben was a pilot. Despite all his knowledge, though, he had not been a pilot in command for a long time, having obtained his license almost 40 years ago. I guess I had inspired him to become current, which he did in January 2019. Then I passed my check ride in July of that year, and the following month, we got married. This year, in June, we bought a Cessna 150, our first baby. If I hadn’t met Ben, I would not have continued flying by myself. He turned out to be a perfect partner, and we love flying together.
As I started to become increasingly confident in flying, I grew more interested in airplanes. I developed a respect for aviators and their achievements. Flying, as it turns out, is no waste of time at all. It is proof of human ingenuity, courage, and determination. This year, I also began training to become a docent at the Museum of Flight in Seattle, something that would have made Ken happy and proud. I realized that I have an ample supply of aviation reference materials that Ken had left.
On a sunny afternoon after flying to Friday Harbor, I stopped by a grocery store. As I was paying, the cashier asked what I had been doing on a beautiful day like this. I replied honestly that I was flying and I am a private pilot. He asked casually, “What made you want to become a pilot?” Well, it is a long story…