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A Peek Behind the Aviation Curtain: An Experience With Ellen Staley

By: 1st Lt. Nicholas Nowland, USAF

Many pilots can point to a specific time when they fell in love with the idea of flying. Many have a singular event in their life when they witnessed something that convinced them that they must seek pilots’ wings and slip the surly bonds of earth. For some, this event is the first time they were deafened by the sky-splitting roar of a low flying aircraft in full after-burner, while others fondly remember their first air show and the delight of watching the Thunderbirds arc through the sky in perfect formation. I have wanted to be a pilot for as long as I can remember, and thus I cannot recall a single event that precipitated my dream of flying. However, I remember well the first time I got a glimpse of the realities of being a United States Air Force pilot, my first taste of the professionalism and attention to detail that defines military aviation.

I lived on Randolph Air Force Base for my senior year of high school, and my parents became friends with a couple named the Staley’s. Ellen and Vic Staley had been pilots in the Air Force and spent years instructing aviators in AETC. They absolutely loved to fly and owned a home with multiple aircraft in a flying neighborhood outside of San Antonio.

Ellen was one of the first female pilots in the Air Force and started pilot training at Columbus in 1979. I too attended pilot training at Columbus, and I can imagine Ellen flying and sweating through stand-ups in the cloying, sticky heat of Mississippi. Pilot training is stressful and challenging enough without the added pressure of breaking barriers, and women like Ellen had to have grit, determination, and the “right stuff”  to forge a path for future female aviators. Ellen was an incredibly kind and generous soul who smiled often and had an indomitable spirit. When I met her, she was in the midst of a years-long battle with cancer. It was a true testament to Ellen’s strength of character that the only outward indication that she was fighting for her life was her physical frailty. My father knew I dreamt of being an Air Force pilot and thus asked the Staley’s if they would take me up in one of their aircraft. They kindly agreed to do so, and thus we made plans for me to join them on a Saturday flight.

Thus, on a beautiful and clear day in the spring of 2011, I drove to the Staleys’ house with a set of earplugs and great anticipation.  As I pulled through the front gate of their neighborhood, I was immediately impressed by what I saw. They lived in what looked like a golf course neighborhood, but instead of links at the center of the community there was a grass landing strip. Everyone had aircraft hangers behind their houses, and the road was a bit wider than usual to allow aircraft to taxi down the streets. It was like driving into a Disneyland for pilots.

I made it to the Staleys’ and they warmly welcomed me into their house and toured me around their hangar. They guided me through an aircraft walk around and then took me inside to the dining room table, aka the flight planning room, to brief the flight. This is where my real learning began. They sat me down at the table, spread out some VFR charts, and pulled out a T-37, a Tweet, on a stick. They then methodically stepped me through a modified Air Force brief, with Ellen and Vic seamlessly explaining our flight profile, timeline, ground and aircraft visual references, airfield operations, and a host of other details. As I sat at the table willing my brain to be an information sponge, a portion of my mind marveled at the way in which they briefed. They were clear and concise in their presentation style and supported their words with effective hand gestures and references to charts to ensure I understood their message. It was like a multimedia briefing without any fancy slides or computer aids. Occasionally they would pick up their Tweet-on-a-stick to portray a maneuver and position it in front of my eye-line to further emphasize a specific sight picture I could expect to see.

At the end of the brief, I  had a small epiphany. This ground preparation was the true heart of the learning experience the Staleys’ and my father wanted me to see. This was the first time I had a taste of the realities of being an AF pilot. Being a professional aviator is as much about the planning and ground preparation for a flight as it is about the time in the air. Any pilot can take someone up in an aircraft, hand them the yoke, and have fun. But true professional aviators show the entire process of flying, and that includes the less fun, but critical, preparation for a sortie.

After briefing, we stepped to their aircraft and taxied down their neighborhood streets to the airfield. Taxing past Texas ranch houses in the cockpit of a Cherokee was a surreal experience. Taking off of the grass strip was exhilarating and reminded me that generations of US military pilots would have intimately understood the challenges of operating heavy aircraft from grass fields. I remember enjoying the flight and learning the basics of landing while doing patterns at a non-towered field, and then dropping down to surprise some boaters enjoying the day on a nearby river. We landed back at their neighborhood and reviewed some pictures from the flight.

Although the flight was extremely enjoyable and seeing south Texas from the air was thrilling, the most impactful parts of the sortie all happened on the ground. The careful chart study, the discussion of our flight path, the airfield examination, and check for obstacle clearances all impressed on me the seriousness of flying. Yes, flying should be fun and provides man the opportunity to engage in three-dimensional freedom of movement in the air, but it is also a serious business that can quickly kill you. Ellen and Vic were the first ones to reveal to me, in a detailed and hands-on manner, how aviation professionals spent the lion’s share of their time preparing to fly, and they did it with the consummate skill and ease that comes from thousands of hours of flight time. They let me peek behind the curtain of the world of professional aviation and helped me make an informed decision that I truly did want to join this world. I will forever be grateful for their generosity in sharing their time and aircraft with me, and for their dedication to making sure I experienced aviation in the right way. Furthermore, I am thankful that officers like Ellen had the courage to go where few women had gone before and provide women like my sisters the opportunity to become United States Air Force aviators.