Editor’s Note: As part of Sporty’s Learn to Fly Month, Air Facts is pleased to share contributor Stacy Wiegman’s account of overcoming her fears and sharing the joy flying with her son.
I earned my private pilot’s license when I was 29 at Wings Field (N67, now LOM). I then flew for fun and talked a few friends into coming along sometimes. A favorite destination was lunch at the airport diner in Ocean City, NJ (26N), and my friend Carmen was a willing passenger more than once. My reputation at my home field was that I was a good, careful, responsible pilot. I was proud of that—I was one of the few women flying there at the time.
I went ahead to earn my instrument and ultimately my commercial ratings. I flew on vacation in Kansas, Florida, and Montana, meeting flight instructors in each location who taught me some fun nuggets like mountain search and rescue techniques. I flew over PHL more times than I can count, looking down on the city buildings and watching the big planes descend below me to the runway. I loved my time in the air.
But after having my son, I found I feared flying. I was afraid to leave him without a mother. I would think about flying once in a while as I focused on working and raising him. I was busy, for sure, but I was also afraid. I accepted that bad things might happen when I flew before he was born. I was fatalistic that even the best pilots sometimes experience circumstances beyond their control. In the years after he was born, though, things changed. We moved to South Carolina, I didn’t have a known home field anymore, and it just seemed so hard to get back into flying. Most of all, I had some serious self doubts.
When he was 10, I said I wanted to fly again. I had actually kept up my third class medical the whole time. Even though I said to myself I wanted to fly, I still didn’t do anything about it. When he was 12, I got more serious and looked up nearby airports and flight schools. The one closest to me had a flying club, but I didn’t know if I wanted to sign up for that commitment. While I was once again at the ME’s office, he mentioned that the next closest airport was popular with his pilot patients because they had a lot of rental planes, so I decided that was the place to go. I signed up for Rod Machado’s online course as a refresher and did that in between work meetings, so I felt pretty good about regulations, airspace, and general ground information.
I called the flight school at Monroe Executive (EQY) and talked to the manager. She was a reassuring woman with a lot of flight experience herself, and she connected me with a flight instructor she felt would be a good fit. In March 2021, I finally got out to the airport. We did some ground school, and my knowledge was acceptable. In early April, I climbed back into a 172. I took two flight lessons that month, and then weather and life grounded me until November.
If I am being honest, I’ll admit that I had some second thoughts. I was so rusty, and that was disappointing to me. Landings were harder than I remembered—I did not remember having this much trouble landing in the past! GPS had emerged just as I stopped flying, so that was a new tool to me. It all seemed so overwhelming, and my confidence took a big hit.
In November, I found time again to go flying. On my second lesson in November, we did the skyline tour of Charlotte. It reminded me why I liked to fly—the amazing view you can’t get any other way. My ability to set up a stabilized approach came back quickly, and my manipulation of the controls was good. It started to feel a little better.
But then we did a night lesson. I always loved night flight because it was smoother, clearer, and there was typically less traffic to worry about. I was looking forward to it. We took off and flew into the nearby practice area to get more familiar with using the GPS to navigate. I was able to find the airport and entered the pattern. After turning final, I was lined up on approach when my instructor said, “Are you lined up with the runway or the taxiway?” With horror, I realized I was lined up to land on the taxiway, so perfectly lit with the blue lights. I quickly shifted to the left, now lined up with the runway. I had forgotten that the blue lights are the taxiway, not the runway!
While everything else started to fall into place, my landings were still a struggle. I searched for advice on how to improve and welcomed criticism from my instructor on my performance. I didn’t want to be an okay pilot—I wanted to be a good pilot. I wanted to grab center line and touch down softly again.
Then a series of planes being down for service impacted my flying time. My flight instructor told me he got a job with the airlines and would be leaving in mid-June. I second-guessed myself again. Maybe this was a sign that it was not to be. I wondered if I had to say “I used to be a pilot” rather than “I am a pilot.”
It was now almost 15 months since I sat down with my instructor for ground school. My instructor said he would sign me off when I said I was ready. My landings were safe even if not ideal. I decided I was going to finish this long flight review. I focused on landing and navigation with GPS, my two struggles. I discovered some helpful sites for improving my landings and used their tips.
Finally, things came together. We did a night flight over Charlotte, with my son in the back taking pictures. It was a perfect night, and the pictures he took are incredible. The fun part of flying was back.
In June, my flight instructor signed me off and a few days later, he left for his new job. I decided to try out all the planes at the school so that I’d have some options, and so I have flown with a new instructor for that. She is an impressive pilot and teacher, and she reminds me of another thing I love about flying—the camaraderie with other pilots.
I have also flown alone. The first time alone was like my first solo all over again. I was very careful on preflight, taking it slow. In my first circuit in the pattern, I talked out loud with every action, set up a stabilized approach, and landed smoothly. It was the culmination of a year and a half of work, delays, frustrations, and doubts. I felt the clouds lifting from me.
My son announced that he wants to learn to fly. In a couple years, I’ll let him do so. For now, he can sit beside me, and we’ll have some adventures like I used to before fear grounded me. We’ll go for lunch 50 miles away once in a while, fly along the coast, and do the skyline tour of the city again. He’ll get to see his mom as a competent pilot—how many kids can say their mom can fly a plane? Everything it took to get back in that left seat was worth it.
Stacy, I’m glad you stuck with it and I hope your son will raise the next generation of pilots in your family!
Several years ago I was pondering what nice thing I could do for my wife. I knew as a young woman she held a pilots license. So I talked to Sunshine at the Auburn Ca airport about her taking lessons. The thought was she would enjoy doing some refresher flights. with an instructor.. I assumed she would take a few flights but not really get back into flying. She was in her 70’s.
HaHa!!! She got back into flying in a big way. Now she has and 172N, N47657. She joined the local 99. Is on the list for the new hangers at Auburn. She has been helping a man gain hours for his commercial. She will fly with a pilot friend to the AOPA show in Spokane. As they say no good deed goes unpunished.
I get to follow her air adventures on Flightradar.
Love this story!
Good for your wife! I hope to be flying well into my 70s and 80s!
Great story! I can really relate hard to your hesitation. That was me last year. I had been away from flying for just under 5 years, while both my sons were born and growing up. Before that, I had very few issues taking a plane up whenever, and absolutely LOVED night flying. Last year, I bought a 1/2 share of a C150 with a former coworker, finished my flight review and…the prospect of mortality really hit me.
Don’t get me wrong, I was ecstatic to be back up in the air, in my own plane. But I had been looking forward to taking my sons up, and suddenly, the prospect of potentially getting into an accident with them in the plane took over my thoughts. It took a little while to accept that risk is just a fact of life, but risk mitigation was entirely up to me.
Long story short, I finally had a chance to fly them around Seattle at the end of last summer (the youngest could still use the rear child seat, not so much now…), and the exclamation my oldest made, when he said “We’re higher than the Space Needle!!” will always stay with me. Plus, my youngest always conks out while flying, so now when he wants a nap, he’ll ask when we can go back up!
I’m glad you were finally able to share your love of aviation with your child. You can’t take that moment away.
Good for you! I know all too well the anxiety that can come after becoming a parent. I’ve heard this often enough that it must be a common experience among women.
Anxiety after having a child happens to men too. Maybe because my wife died ten weeks after giving birth to our daughter, I wanted to diminish the possibility she would be left as an orphan. I felt I had to quit both flying and motorcycling to be here for her. It took me over five years to get back into flying. That is when I discovered I could fly for the Civil Air Patrol. I also purchased another motorcycle. I still love both.
Anxiety, fear, and imposter syndrome all culminate together to pose a very real threat. I felt like I was reading my story as this was very similar to what I experienced. I’m a college professor by training, so became a ground instructor and purposefully created a ground school course that focuses on building confidence, community, and courage in learners. I’ve realized this isn’t just a woman thing…it is anyone who is learning something new and pushing themselves outside their boundaries.
Thank you for writing this incredible and relatable piece. :)
Thank you for your inspiring story! Good on you for pushing past that agonizing uncertainty.
Stacy, thank you for sharing your struggle with fear. I’m currently dealing with something similar. It’s been my desire to get my pilots’ certificate since my husband, an instrument pilot, and I co-own a beautiful Cessna 182. I have loved every bit of my training thus far, but now that I’m at the point of doing my solo cross countries, all the “what ifs” are definitely popping up. Your story is very encouraging!
It’s the starting that is the hardest! Keep at it!
If we all waited till there were no more what ifs in life, we would all be old and gray and have no fond memories of what we could have done and accomplished.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I’m having the exact fears of doubt, mortality and potential excitement for a past time I used to love so much. Kids are 10&12 now. I’m male, have female instructor but otherwise story is the same! I quit as GPS was becoming more widespread. I used to be a very cautious pilot but making simple mistakes in my Rusty pilot training that freak me out as I know just how wrong things can go from one little mistake. Thanks again for sharing. Pilots need to keep encouraging each other to make flying safer and more enjoyable again!
It definitely highlights your weaknesses and strengths to come back after a long break. But overcoming those deficiencies is a great feeling! Learning the GPS blew my mind. No more VORs? No more navigating from one VOR to another? Once I acclimated to GPS, I loved it. No more guessing the distance–it just shows you. Keep flying!
Congratulations! Keep it up. I’m so glad to see more women flying. Just to be accurate, FCA is the Kalispell VOR, KGPI is Glacier Park International airport.
The instructor I flew with logged FCA in my logbook. FCA is the IATA code, KFCA is the ICAO code, and KGPI is the FAA code–but as long as you can identify where you flew, I believe you can use even the full name of the airport in your logbook. That’s how my Dad documented his flights–full airport names!
While my children were young I was far too nervous and frightened to learn to fly in order to join my husband on flights in his small plane. I would swallow my fear and travel in large commercial aircraft because I loved to visit new places. While on one vacation I went up in a sightseeing helicopter and immediately fell in love with what you could see and where you could go. A few years later, now single, 51 years old, with college age children I walked into a helicopter flight school to see if they could take someone with an abject fear of flying to teach how to fly, a helicopter. Long story short. Not only did I learn to fly, I acquired a Robinson helicopter and started my own business taking up photographers. I did that until retiring more than 22 years later in my mid-70’s. It is never to late to start something new.
Much respect that you flew a helicopter! I think perhaps I’ll make aviation my second career somehow.
Great article and I can also relate. Stopped flying several months before my daughter was born in 2009. Expense, time, and fear of leaving her without a Dad were the primary drivers. My wife was always encouraging of me getting back in the air, and I finally started this year when my wife and daughter put some money in my flight school account for Father’s Day.
The first flight was this summer in the 172 and despite a hot, bumpy day, the CFI described my flying as smooth. But weather, maintenance, and work forced enough cancelations that the instructor was called up to the airlines before we could fly again. So I decided to get a few aerobatics flights in the Super Decathlon, something I also enjoyed when I was flying regularly.
Went up yesterday in the 172 with a new instructor who I like. Turns out we went to the same university for undergrad, but more than 20 years apart. My flying was decent, but my landing sight picture was way off and I consistently flared too high. I walked away frustrated and sad that I’d lost so much of the skill I once had. My aerobatic flying is actually better than my regular flying.
My plan was to complete the BFR while starting the commercial, which seemed like a good rating to brush up on the PPL skills. And like most of you, glass cockpits and GPS were only becoming widely used when I stopped flying, so that’s another challenge.
The glass cockpit and GPS were what I spent the most time on besides landings. For landings, I found that The Bold Method was a really helpful website. It helped me picture the final feet and flare–in fact, I think that watching their videos over and over again made the difference. Keep at it!
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Lovely story and journey, Stacy! I’m glad you overcame the fear and are back in the skies! Although I haven’t stop flying, I’ve been flying for the airlines for the past decade, and so have dedicated to GA flying way less than I wanted, and one of the big things I miss is flying solo: imagine… 5000 hours of multicrew flight get you both wanting to fly alone and not so sure if you should (at least, not on an aircraft other than the one I work and am current at). So, in a way I am experiencing this long way back you talk about. I understand, for different reasons, your take on the risks involved too. I am hoping to get all this managed by the end of this year. I miss my GA cross countries… one of them, in 2013, mind you… included Monroe! Safe flights, I am very happy for you and for your son, it must be amazing to take him flying; I loved to take my Mom once!
I got used to having the instructor with me, much like you are used to having a crew. Shaking that fear took time and just plain grit. But the short flights to somewhere for lunch are so much fun! We flew to Lexington, NC, for lunch, and we got to borrow a crew car. My son thought that was the most amazing thing to do, just borrow an airport car! He told me recently he wants to do that again soon.
I bet he does! I used to take my wife to Hilton Head (KHXD) during my time building, highly recommend a lunch at Skull Creek.