Thursday, August 4, 2011

'The sky is my office': Aviators in Destin mark 100 years in female flight history

From NWF Daily 'The sky is my office': Aviators in Destin mark 100 years in female flight history
(From July 31, 2011)
DESTIN — Christa Strang and Buffy Stevenson might seem like your average working wives and mothers, but when they take off for a day on the job, they use the runway at the Destin Airport.

“The sky is my office,” said Stevenson, a pilot tour guide for Panhandle Helicopter.

One hundred years ago today, Harriet Quimby became the first woman in the United States to receive her pilot’s license, forging the way for other pilots such as Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride, the first woman in space.

“They opened the doors for women who want to make flying a profession or a hobby,” Strang said. “Even as I was growing up, it was a very male-dominated field and it still is.”

Becoming a pilot seemed like nothing more than a dream for the Crestview resident.

“I had to pay for college myself, so I always thought I would end up doing something else,” Strang said.

While studying pre-law at college in Long Beach, Calif., a few friends bought her an introductory flight as a present.

“That was all it took,” she said.

At 18 years old, Strang set out to earn her wings, flying whenever she could afford it. After four years, she received her private pilot’s license and moved to Destin to become the first woman flight instructor at Miracle Strip Aviation.

Later, she also became the first female chief flight instructor at Peter Prince Airport in Milton before working as a first officer for Regional Jets.

While working for the airlines, “you’re stuck wearing a man’s uniform with the tie and the hat and the jacket. You kind of feel like you’re being put into a mold that’s made for men,” Strang said.

Before starting her own flight management and pilot services company, Centerline Flight Services, she also worked for the Sterling Companies as head of the flight department, in which she flew a Beechjet 400 and a King Air 90.

Nowadays, the entrepreneur and mother of twin 3-year-old girls, flies a Piper Meridian for her client, Allied Global Ventures.

Whether you’re a man or a woman, “becoming a pilot is definitely a fulfilling and rewarding endeavor,” Strang said. “It’s amazingly beautiful up there and it’s always a challenge.”

Buffy Stevenson, a grandmother and the owner of HeliGirl Aviation, had been working in the hospitality industry for 25 years when she decided it was time for a career change.

“It wasn’t like I set out to be a helicopter pilot. It was just one of those things I fell into,” said the Panama City Beach resident. “I’ve always been fascinated with flying. When I was younger, my dad got his private pilot’s license and took me up for the first time in a Cessna.”

The experience stuck with her into adulthood. Stevenson took her first demo flight in a helicopter in 2008 and was “totally hooked.”

“I just knew right when I went up for that flight that it was what I was going to do,” she said.

Although her mother was a little nervous and scared, Stevenson began her pilot training at Airwork LLC in Las Vegas. Less than two years later, she earned her rotorcraft rating and various other certifications and moved to Destin.

Flying helicopter tours with Panhandle Helicopter is her first break into the aviation industry.

In the air “everyone is in a great mood and having fun. I fly tours up and down the beach. I can’t really get people to feel sorry me,” she said.

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