It was a calm evening and the sun was setting behind the Blue Ridge Mountains as the familiar smell of leather and avgas instantly brought me to my happy place.

“Skyhawk 73X, cleared for takeoff.”

First flight with dad – what a feeling!

I smoothly advanced the throttle, my heels on the floor as I guided the Cessna 172 down the centerline of the runway. Once airborne, my face broke into a wide smile as I turned to my dad and our eyes met. Words were not needed in that magical moment. My first flight with a passenger was an achievement earned through much hard work and dedication.

I did not grow up around aviation. In fact, before I started flight lessons, I didn’t personally know anyone who was a pilot. When I was fifteen, my family moved to a small town in North Carolina. We lived near the small airport, and I would look up in the sky at the sound of every airplane passing overhead. I remember wanting to feel what the pilot was feeling and see what he was seeing. I longed to fly.

One day, the airport was having an open house, and I begged my parents to take me. I was fascinated by the airplanes and I could hardly contain my excitement as I took my first flight in a general aviation aircraft. I was squished in the back seat of that little plane, peering out the tiny window. As soon as the wheels left the ground, a feeling of pure ecstasy filled me and I knew I had to fly. From that moment on, whenever I looked up at the little airplanes passing overhead I told myself, “I’m going to be a pilot some day.”

Flying was all I could think about. I began saving my money for one purpose: flight lessons. My dad unknowingly started my aviation journey by gifting me a discovery flight for my 21st birthday. He thought the flight would satisfy my need to be in the air. But instead, that discovery flight fanned the flame of my love for aviation. My burning desire became my ultimate passion, and there was no turning back.

With the words “You’ve got this,” my flight instructor closed the door and for the first time I was left in the cockpit on my own. As I taxied the airplane to the runway, I tried not to think about the empty right seat. Fear mixed with excitement as I lined up with the runway centerline and took a deep breath. As I gripped the yoke and added full throttle, all fear and nervousness was left on the runway behind me. Calm and confidence reigned in the cockpit. It was just me and the endless open sky.

Passing the checkride changes you forever.

That little airplane was the gateway to another world. Another world where it didn’t matter what I looked like, what my background was, or what my social status was like. All that mattered was that I was flying an airplane.

Although my aviation journey has been met with many challenges and setbacks, I have never lost the thrill and excitement of my first solo flight. Each new milestone brings new excitement. The aviation community is truly the most welcoming and encouraging. When I climbed into the cockpit of an airplane, I never once thought that I couldn’t be a pilot. One day I might be behind the yoke of a commercial airliner, but my heart will always be with the small planes of general aviation. That is where my journey began. I will be forever grateful for that day at my local airport, when one plane made one girl’s dream come true.

Does my dad regret starting me on the aviation path? Not one bit! My parents saw aviation transform their shy, quiet daughter into the strong, confident woman I am today. When they see my eyes light up at the sound of an airplane, or hear the enthusiasm in my voice when talking about aviation, they know it was all worth it. Every time I get behind the controls of an airplane, I know I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.

Flying isn’t something I simply do, it’s who I am.