The Aviatrix

In the late 1990s, my Mom had this wild notion of flying a plane. She took lessons, was certified as a pilot, and later became a flight instructor. Mom has always led an interesting life, but aviation has always struck me as one of her most astonishing pursuits. In 2002, I wrote a profile for Seven Days about her life as a pilot, an article that won me a staff writer position at Burlington’s premiere newsweekly. While that career was short-lived, I am still beholden to the piece. Recently, I produced a short video that more vividly illustrates what it’s like to fly with my Mom.

Mom has a loving way of opening up the engine of her plane – a brief, nondescript task that is all too vital. She flips back the cowl flap near the nose of the plane and peaks inside, shaking her head at the black grit that has started to encrust the pistons. Someday soon she will have to clean them, as even a surface layer of grime can deteriorate the delicate parts. She checks the gas in the wings—for a single droplet of water could be fatal—and surveys the windswept runway, watchful for that one telltale spot of brake fluid. In the precise world of avionics, a lone impediment can keep a pilot grounded. And Mom can’t stand to stay on the ground.

Every few days, my mother, Gail Isenberg, takes N6155 Foxtrot, the small, two-seater 1974 prop, cruising across the Champlain Valley. She bought it last year in a timely business deal, and it took her fewer than two full years of flight school to pilot it on her own.

Today I’m flying with my mother for the first time without an instructor. I watch, feeling a bit useless, as she performs the mysterious pre-flight check. She studies the ailerons and the rudder, talking to herself: “Ailerons are okay. The rudder’s looking good…” Mom is a petite woman wearing a brown leather bomber jacket and a self-knit scarf. She moves nimbly around the fuselage. At last, after a good 20 minutes of inspecting every inch of her third child, she ushers me into the passenger seat.

Mom squeezes into the cockpit and grasps the yoke – she forbids me from calling it a steering wheel – and we fasten our seatbelts and affix our headsets.

“Clear prop!” she calls into the empty airstrip, and slams the door. A few moments later the propeller is spinning, then vanishes into a circular blur as the engine ignites. After a quick exchange with the control tower – a coded gibberish to me – we begin taxiing into the runway, facing the distant mountains, the pale walls of Burlington International stretched behind us.

“You ready?” she asks, her eyes gleaming.

“All set,” I say. Suddenly I recall what many of my friends have said: You get in a plane with your mother? I don’t even trust my parents to drive…

During our past expeditions, her instructor, Byron Danforth, was always there to grab control in an emergency. Now I am occupying his former seat, and our lives are held in Mom’s small hands. I hear the voice of the air traffic controller crackle in my ears, saying, “6155 Foxtrot, zero, one, maintain runway heading, clear for takeoff.” And then we begin to accelerate – I feel the initial centripetal force pressing against my chest – and 6155 Foxtrot is bombing down the tarmac. My stomach burbles mildly as we launch slowly into the air. Looking down, I see a black blotch crawling across the receding brown grass – the plane’s shadow. My God, I think. We’re actually flying. And with a flash I realize my Mom is not only cool, but astounding.

 •

It all started with flowers. Mom was buying a bouquet for me back in May 1998 – celebrating the conclusion of my first year of college – and the florist cheerfully talked her into entering a drawing for a free private flight. Amazingly, she won. Mom had forgotten that the town of Addison County does, in fact, have a small, functional airport, hidden behind a small wood in East Middlebury. Her complementary flight was piloted by Danforth, a tall, burly man with a sense of humor as slippery as old machine oil.

In the middle of their flight, as Danforth soared over the rich green forest, Mom confessed that she was interested in learning to fly. A fleeting fancy, as improbable as any other, perhaps inspired by that year’s bestseller, Inside the Sky, by William Langewiesche.

When he heard this, Byron allegedly became excited and coaxed her into handling the yoke. The lesson went smoothly, for it’s the takeoffs and landings that daunt new pilots, but when Danforth retook control, he made a swift turn. Mom lost her sense of polarity, watching in horror as the horizon was knocked diagonally. She threw up everywhere. Unfortunately, Danforth had forgotten to replace the vomit bags that day.

He called the next day and left a message on our machine: “Gail, for obvious reasons, I’m offering you a second free flight.” As chivalric as the offer was, Mom was reluctant to fly again, and even less convinced that take lessons was a wise idea. The expenses were great: renting the plane, hiring an instructor, and even fueling the engine, at $2.80 a gallon for low lead, would add up quickly – Foxtrot, a very small aerobatic plane, takes 22.5 gallons of usable fuel, which lasts fewer than six hours. Cost aside, she was leading two careers as a psychology adjust professor at UVM and director of psychological services for the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing, which severely limited her free time. So she waited till August to take Danforth up on his offer.

This time she guarded her stomach against several more tight turns, and over the course of the flight, as she puts it, “I realized this is what I wanted to do.” By the time they landed, Mom had thrown caution to the wind: She decided to take lessons.

 •

Since the days of biplanes, fewer than 5 percent of American pilots have been women. Avionics is a splinter of the vastly male-dominated mechanical arts, and the most celebrated pilots are either in the airforce or airforce veterans. Amelia Earhart was the most famous woman to break the sex barrier – due in large part to her husband’s influence – and she helped found the Ninety-Nines, an organization for female pilots, so called because there were only 99 original members. Since her disappearance, no woman has ever matched Earhart’s notoriety.

Still, the so-called “aviatrix” is far from extinct. Mom only knows two female pilots in the area – one is strictly recreational and other is applying for an instrument rating – but she frequently flips through International Woman Pilot magazine, helping her connect to the small but proud community. Most importantly, the men in her field have welcomed her from the get-go.

The Middlebury airport is tiny, consisting of a single runway and no control tower. Most of the planes are simple two- and three-seater props, which park in ordered lines outside the main office. The office itself is a simple affair with a main lobby, a coffee maker, flight charts, stacks of magazines, and an office that used to be a classroom for ground school. In such an intimate area, community comes first; for years men have been gathering here to share stories, gulp coffee, and get ready to tinker with engines. According to Mom, they rarely talk about anything other than airplanes.

It was intimidating for a female, 47-year-old, Ph.D.-holding counseling psychologist to saunter into such a masculine environment, smell the fumes, and shake oily hands. She remembers one time feeling entirely out of place – many of the Middlebury mechanics have tinkered with engines since their late teens, and all of them are male. When she expressed her doubts to Danforth, he wrote her a curt e-mail, ensuring her that “you are as welcome as anyone else.” It’s a testament to the small-plane community that Mom hasn’t confronted antagonism from her peers. “Without exception,” she says, “I’ve been encouraged from the very beginning.” The hangar has only inspired Mom to explore the guts of the airplane. Her Christmas list has changed from knitting needles and shoes to screwdrivers and the Leatherman Super Tool. Not to mention 6155 Foxtrot.

Mom has never really considered buying her own plane until a casual get-together with some of her newfound flight-mates, in September 2000. She was talking with Danforth and airline pilot Bill Schwartz, discussing the economics of recreational flying. Private lessons were making Mom uneasy about the costs of renting planes and paying Danforth for each lesson.

Schwartz mentioned that he knew of this little plane for sale, a certain 6155 Foxtrot. He had owned it himself until two years before, when he coincidentally sold it to another woman, Katherine Chambers, from Salem, New York. Danforth remembered the plane vividly – he had worked on it, off and on for many years – and it suddenly occurred to them to help my mother buy it. With some negotiation, they asserted, Mom could probably strike a bargain $25,000.

At first this seemed outlandish to my mother. Twenty-five grand is a lot of money, even for practicing psychologists. But Danforth and Schwartz were enthused by the idea, and broke down their argument: A plane, unlike a car, always appreciates in value, enabling her to make a profit if she ever sold it. To own your plane and pay for space and fuel would eventually be a better deal than renting a plane for every lesson. Plus, once she got her license, she could fly on any clear day, and park Foxtrot in either the Burlington or Middlebury airports.

“So I realized it was a good idea,” Mom recalls. “And I turned to them and said, ‘Byron, Bill, just one favor: Can you help me convince my husband?'”

 •

Sitting next to Mom in the plane, it’s clear her life has changed dramatically. For years she has worked as a therapist and professor. She is fluent in American Sign Language and has a Bachelor’s Degree in music, signs of your classic liberal renaissance woman. Until four years ago, flying was as alien to her as lion hunting, and yet now she has earned her own license and bought a plane. She has dedicated hundreds of cross-country hours, nearly filling her dog-eared logbook with flight entries. By September, Mom hopes to become a certified flight instructor and train others professionally, accepting the fact that flying can no longer be a hobby. Instruction is the best and most rewarding solution for the flight enthusiast.

Mom can’t think about these things right now, not while we’re sailing over the lush flat countryside, passing the slim silver bar of a jet, watching the sun blaze across Lake Champlain. She must devote all her attention to the wind currents, the clouds ahead, and above all, the instruments in front of her, all the little dials that keep her flying straight and safely. “I don’t get in a plane and not have a little bit of fear,” she tells me. “But the rush is so much greater.”

We head toward the ground, skirting the mountains. As we arc around the Middlebury runway, the branches of pine trees reach up to Foxtrot’s belly. Mom zeroes in on the runway and the asphalt widens like a mouth. She’s landing now, feeling the familiar jostle of tires hitting pavement. But even before her plane touches the ground, Mom is calculating how soon she can take off again.

— 2002