Saturday, September 10, 2011

Flying’s all in a day’s work for Nancy Robertson


From Snohomish County Business Journal: Flying’s all in a day’s work for Nancy Robertson
The world’s fascination with vintage World War II military aircraft has gotten John Sessions’ restored B-25, “Grumpy,” its share of YouTube videos, but Nancy Robertson of Snohomish, one of the bomber’s pilots, remembers one in particular that amuses her.

“On the video, you can hear the mother saying the plane is a B-25 World War II bomber landing at Paine Field,” she recalls. “Then you hear her young son exclaim as he spots the pilot, ‘Mom! It’s a girl!’ ”

Being a woman pilot was out of the norm when she began flying in 1987, “just for the fun of it,” but today, when many women have pilots’ licenses and airlines are hiring women pilots, it’s less common for people to be surprised.

What does surprise people is that her daily business is flying corporate jets and that her spare time flying often finds her at the controls of a B-25 Mitchell, a twin-engine bomber.

In fact, she’s one of only three women in the world rated by the Federal Aviation Administration to fly B-25s. She and her husband, Lance, earned their B-25 ratings on the same day at Paine Field. Both of them regularly fly the bomber for Sessions’ Historic Flight Foundation aviation museum and restoration center at Paine Field.

“Corporate jets are a great way to travel but flying them is just a job that pays the bills. The real fun comes from flying planes like the B-25 and the museum’s 1930s Lockheed Lodestar,” she said. The Lodestar is the type of aircraft pioneering female aviator Amelia Earhart flew on her ill-fated attempt at an around-the-world flight in 1937.

There are fewer than a dozen Lodestars in flyable condition, Robertson said, admitting she thought a lot about Earhart while she was flying it. Robertson said it’s the plane she loves to fly most, second only to “Grumpy.”

“Grumpy gets around a lot, including airshows at Abbotsford, B.C., Olympia, Boeing Field, Arlington, Spokane and Princeton, B.C., among others, such as the Heritage Flight Museum, our sister museum in Bellingham,” she said. “Everywhere we go, we offer rides in Grumpy, too, for $425 per person.”

Her love affair with flying began in 1987 when she took Everett Community College’s aviation ground-school class, which ended with students taking the FAA’s ground-school test, the first step toward getting a pilot’s license.

“I took the class with my aunt, Nona Anderson. She didn’t go on to get her license but I did,” Robertson said.

That class dramatically changed her life.

“I was a personal banker for Sea-First Bank at the time and thought I’d take a flight lesson or two just for fun,” she said. “Once I started flying I loved it so much I never looked back.”

She earned her private pilot’s license at Harvey Field in Snohomish, the town where she grew up and the area where she lives today, soloing in a single-engine Cessna 152. For many people, that would have been enough.

But for Robertson, each flight only supercharged her enthusiasm for more flying.

Her next challenge was completing instrument flying, distancing herself from fair-weather visual flight rules, followed by earning a commercial rating and then her multi-engine aircraft rating, all at Harvey Field.

Along with loving her flying lessons, she discovered she also loved her flight instructor and future husband, Lance Robertson.

“We didn’t start dating until I was halfway through my commercial license,” she said. “Now we often fly the B-25 together. We even have landing competitions in different planes to see who can make the smoothest landing or hit a predicted spot on the runway. But, with the B-25 our competition is to see who can start the engines the best. They’re temperamental.”

Lance Robertson, who is on the board of directors of the Pacific Northwest Business Aviation Association, has flown for more than 25 years, including piloting 727s, MD-80s, 757s and 767s for TWA. Today he is the chief pilot for the Nordstrom Flight Department, based at Boeing Field.

Nancy Robertson never did get back to the banking world. Instead, she began flying corporate aircraft for different clients, including a twin-engine Beechcraft Barron for Northwest Composites at Arlington Airport. In 1990, she stepped up to jets when she was hired to fly a Cessna Citation for Reuland Electric, a California firm. She’s also flown for Lakeside Industries, an Issaquah-based paving company with contracts in Washington and Oregon.

Being a female pilot during those years was a more unusual challenge than it is today. There’s no doubt Robertson was a pioneer in many areas of aviation, not only as a corporate pilot but also in the close-knit warbirds community.

“Flying corporate aircraft and warbirds has always been a good ol’ boys network,” she said. “Fortunately, when I met John Sessions, he let me fly, provided encouragement and opened some doors for me.”

She began co-piloting a Cessna Citation 500 with Sessions seven years ago and recalls sitting in the plane listening to him talk about his dream of opening the Historic Flight Foundation at Paine Field. Later she worked for him as the building was under construction and the first warbirds began coming in, providing her an opportunity to fly a T-6 Texan and then “Grumpy” after Sessions flew it from England where it had long been a favorite of air show crowds.

“Paine Field is a wonderful place for the foundation and its historic planes,” she said. “Besides the Historic Flight Foundation’s planes, you’ve got Paul Allen’s Flying Heritage Collection across the runway, the Future of Flight and Boeing tours at the north end of the field, the Me-262 project and the Museum of Flight’s restoration center. How many places can you find all of these aviation venues at the same airport?”

What does she like best about flying?

“It’s the freedom of flight and the experiences that flying offers. Like tomorrow morning, I fly a jet charter to Alaska in the morning, have lunch, then fly back home and I’m in Snohomish in time for dinner,” she said. “Also, the surprises in aviation. Who knew that flying corporate jets would lead to flying vintage military aircraft?”

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