Sunday, April 1, 2012

Feet on the Ground, Dreams in the Air

From the Ramona Sentinel: Feet on the Ground, Dreams in the Air
Once upon a time, a young girl with a dream of flying took to the skies. The girl did great things. She learned to pilot an aircraft by herself. She set a world record.

But the girl had, almost literally, a broken heart.

Physically, her heart has been repaired, but by keeping her from flying on her own, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) seems determined to keep her heart forever broken.

Rachel Carter was only 9 years old in 1994, when she piloted an airplane by herself, with her father as her copilot, from coast to coast.

“I’ve been flying and taking lessons since I was 7 years old,” she said. “My dad, Jimmy Carter, is a flight instructor and I lived at the airport. I grew up in the backseat of an airplane.”

She laughed, “I was always asking ‘Can I fly now? Can I fly now?’ when dad was giving other people their lessons. I must have driven them crazy.”

Her goals changed to more than just flying when she saw another youngster, Vicki Van Meter, make headlines by piloting a plane across the country at 11 years of age.

“I wanted to do the same thing,” said Carter.

And she did, becoming the youngest person to ever fly across the country piloting a plane on her own.

“I think of it now, looking back on it, that my dad made it happen,” she said. “We didn’t have the money for that kind of trip, but he found sponsors and made all the phone calls.”

While thrilled to have set the world’s record, Carter is disappointed that that no other young person will have the chance to set their own record in the history books. Further, Carter’s flight isn’t listed in “The Guinness Book of World Records.” They ceased to recognize the “youngest pilots” category, hoping to avoid encouraging unsafe flight attempts.

“It’s the coolest thing ever and I’ll never forget it, and a great bonding experience with my dad,” she said. “But records are made to be broken, and now no one else will get that chance.”

Meanwhile, Carter has continued to face some monumental challenges in her young life, including the issue of her “broken” heart.

“I’ve had a heart problem, since I was 3 years old. My heart was fine for the longest time. But in 2003, I got a bacterial infection, and when I woke up Christmas Day, I couldn’t walk on one of my legs.”

Carter faced emergency open heart surgery the next day, and found that, not only was her weak heart valve in trouble, but so was her other one.

“My mitral valve took such stress that both it and my aorta had to be replaced. One is now a pig valve and one a cow, and, ironically, I looked at my chart when the nurses weren’t around and found out one of the valves came from Ramona,” she said with a laugh.

But there was to be no laughing when it came time that year for her license renewal, which the FAA denied.

“Since I’ve had a double valve replacement, FAA regulations won’t allow me to pilot a plane by myself,” she explained. “But I am still fighting for my license. I was 19 years old when I had the surgery; that was 8 years ago. My cardiologist says I’m OK to fly. And most of the people around with double-valve replacements are 60-plus years old. There should be some consideration for my age.”

Carter can’t even get a sport pilot license, since the FAA denied her a license.

Saying, “Flying is my ultimate freedom,” Carter has done what she can to continue her passion in the years since the FAA grounded her.

“I got a degree in aviation management, and now am assistant manager at the Ramona Airport,” she said. “I’m partial to this airport — it’s my favorite airport — and this is my home. It’s kind of neat that I grew up here and now I’m working here.”

The job isn’t necessarily glamorous, but Carter handles all of it with an easy grace. She fills in for Airport Manager Bo Donovan, and her tasks include everything from picking up trash blown along the fence to answering phone calls, handling reports, and taking requests from all over the world.

When not filling in for Donovan, Carter keeps her plans in the air; she also became a flight attendant for a private jet.

Meanwhile, despite her heartache over being unable to pilot a plane by herself, Carter chooses not to dwell on the negative.

“I take the little victories in life,” she said. “I believe people can do what they set out to do. This is an obstacle and I can beat this. I love flying and talking to pilots and spending time with people that share the passion. It’s my calling. It’s about enjoying my time here.”

And when the anniversary of her record flight comes around, she plans to use the publicity around the event to continue her fight.

“You only live once,” she said. “Flying for me is exhilarating. I feel free. I’m going to do whatever I can to keep flying.”

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