Woman Pilots Her Way To Happily Balanced Life

By Susan Parrish
The Columbian, Vancouver, Wash.

Pilot Theresa Nelson gently set down the Cessna 172 on the airstrip at Pearson Field and said “home, sweet home.”

Nelson has been passionate about airplanes since she was a kid being raised by her flight instructor father.

“At age 7, I had my first flight lesson,” she said. “Dad put me in the front seat of an airplane on two phone books. He helped me fly from point A to point B.”

She’s been flying ever since.

Nelson began formal flying lessons at age 15, completed her first solo flight at 16 and earned her pilot’s license at 17.

She worked her way through college by washing airplanes and teaching flying lessons and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in aeronautical sciences.

Now 35, Nelson is the only woman flight instructor at Aero Maintenance Flight Center at Pearson Field. She’s also the chief instructor with authority over the nine male instructors.

Women are still the minority in the aviation industry. Although 80 percent of flight attendants are women, fewer than 7 percent of pilots are women. Nelson sometimes encounters people who express wonder that a woman can be a pilot.

“My peers don’t find it to be odd, but the general public sees it as an odd thing,” she said.

She said many of her student pilots “like someone with a gentler touch. I think that rubs off on our flight instructors. They’ve adapted to my gentle ways.”

Her dad’s military career moved the family around, but after he retired, he settled the family in Olive Branch, Miss., where he became a flight instructor and also worked for a commuter airline.

“My dad was my biggest hero,” Nelson said. “My mentor.”

When she was 15, Nelson started hanging out at the small airport where her dad worked. After she earned her pilot’s license, her dad bought an airplane for Nelson and her brother, Matt, to share.

“My dad always wanted my brother and me to be independent,” she said. “He wanted me to know how to change a tire. In aviation, you have to know how the airplane works.”

Throughout her high school years in Aviation Explorers, an educational club for youth, Nelson said there were five or six girls and 25 boys. The only woman pilot at the airport in Olive Branch was Mary Dilda, a FedEx pilot, who encouraged Nelson to fly aerobatics. She did.

“I’ve been introduced to some pretty profound women pioneers in aviation,” Nelson said. “I’m just a follower. They paved the path for a lot of us.”

All in the family
Aviation is in her family’s blood. Her dad, Steve Dunkel, retired as a flight instructor, but he still flies with Nelson whenever he visits her.

Her brother, a pilot for Jet Blue, lives in Boston.

Her husband, a pilot with Skywest Airlines, flies out of Portland International Airport.

Nelson prefers working at a small airport and being home at night for her 13-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son.

“I avoided working for airlines my entire career,” she said. “My dad did it. I saw how hard it was to be a good parent on a four-day trip. It wasn’t conducive to family life. But I love flying. I found a way to make it work. I love being here at a small airport flying small airplanes. I don’t want the magic to go away.”

Her kids help out during aviation ground school classes. Nelson said her son seems interested in learning to fly.
“He’s got it!” she said, grinning.

Flight education
Throughout high school, Nelson was involved in the airport’s Aviation Explorer post, and served as president. She credits the program for advancing her aviation skills.

Nelson would like to start an Aviation Explorer post at Pearson Field next year if she can gather enough like-minded aviation enthusiasts to help.

As a volunteer in the new aviation technology program at the Clark County Skills Center, Nelson has been a guest speaker, helped with flight simulator training and led tours of Aero Maintenance at Pearson Field.

She said she wants to encourage young people to consider a career as a pilot. She said pilots need to have a calm composure, but not necessarily a “huge need for math and science. It’s not like being an astronaut. It’s a great job for anyone who hates the idea of a desk job and loves to travel.”

This week, Nelson’s family is flying to Friday Harbor to go whale watching. Instead of a six-hour drive and catching a ferry, the family can fly to San Juan Island in about an hour.

“Flying for me has always been a freedom,” she said. “You leave the surface of the earth. And you can go any direction you want.”

12 notable women aviators
–Raymonde de Laroche (French): First woman in the world to earn a pilot license (1910).
–Harriet Quimby: First American woman to earn a pilot’s license (1911).
–Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman: First female pilot of African-American descent (1921).
–Amelia Earhart: First woman to fly solo, nonstop, across the Atlantic Ocean (1932).
–Helen Richey: First woman to fly a commercial airline on a regularly scheduled mail route (1934).
–Leah Hing: First Chinese-American woman to earn her pilot’s license. She did so at Vancouver’s Pearson Field (1934).
–Beryl Markham: First woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west (1936).
–Emily Howell Warner: First woman captain of a scheduled U.S. airline (1976).
–Valentina Tereshkova (Russian): First woman in space (1963).
–Sally Ride: First American woman in space (1983).
–Beverly Burns: First woman to pilot a Boeing 747 (1984).
–Hanadi Zakaria al-Hindi: First Saudi woman to become commercial pilot (2004).

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