Columbus woman notches rare achievement: female pilot

Columbus mother notches rare achievement to become a two-pilot family

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comNovember 10, 2013 

She now flies like an Eagle.

While her husband trained to obtain his pilot's license this year, Andrea Eagle took the so-called pinch-hitter lessons to understand the basics, in case Chris somehow was incapacitated while the family flew in their four-seat airplane.

Andrea enjoyed the experience so much, she decided to pursue her own pilot's license. And on Oct. 12, when she passed her test, Andrea notched a rare achievement: Only 6.65 percent of U.S. civilian pilots in 2012 were female (40,621 out of 610,576), according to the most recent data from the Federal Aviation Administration.

"Most of my female friends think I'm crazy," said Andrea, a Columbus Regional Health pharmacist at the Family Practice Center. "I tell them, 'You can do it, too. I've got a full-time job, I've got two kids, and a lot of times as a mom, your identity is so wrapped up in your kids and your family and everything. I just think it's really important to have something you do for yourself, that you really enjoy, and that's what this is for me."

As she recalled the first time she flew solo, Andrea seemed like she was about to soar without wings: "When you actually take the plane up by yourself and you get it on the ground, you're like, 'Holy crap! I just did that all by myself!'"

Chris, director of facilities at Midtown Medical Center (formerly the Medical Center), laughed and said, "There was a time when it went from 'my plane' to 'our plane.' But I encouraged her to go do it.

"There certainly is an added measure of safety having two pilots in the front. There's also a tremendous added convenience of having a pilot next to you that can help you do things like navigate and knows things you're supposed to do and actually operate the aircraft. She's my autopilot now."

A minimum of 40 hours of flight training is required before being allowed to take the pilot's license test. David Hall, an independent certified flight instructor who taught Andrea, said it takes an average of 75 hours of training for folks to pass the test but Andrea needed only 65 hours.

"She is probably in the top one-third of pilots by earning her license much before the national average time," said Hall, who has been a pilot for 16 years.

Hall estimated 70 percent to 80 percent of those who start flight training give up before getting their pilot's license. He listed Andrea's intelligence and determination as the key factors to her success.

"We tap into points most people don't even access," he said.

Andrea praised Hall for his instruction. She insisted the toughest part of passing the test was the anticipation.

"Once I got up there and started doing it -- I'd done it so much, especially the week before, when I flew every day -- it had gotten to where it was just a lot of muscle memory," she said. "I was confident that I knew how to do it."

Andrea also thanked Chris and her mother, Shirley Exum, for taking care of daughter, Annalise, a fourth-grader at St. Luke School, and son, Drew, a seventh-grader

at St. Luke, while she trained.

"I didn't have any idea I would like it as much as I did until I got in there and started doing it," Andrea said. "I'd been around small planes before. My first job out of high school was working for a crop duster in south Georgia, but I never even thought about flying until this year."

Now, she can't remember being afraid at any time she has been the pilot.

"The first couple of times I flew by myself, it was kind of nerve-racking," she said, "but I never really was scared or fearful that something was going to go wrong."

The Eagles' plane, a Piper Cherokee 180, can go as fast as 140 mph, as high as 12,000 feet and as far as 500 nautical miles on one tank of gas. Asked where they have flown since becoming a two-pilot family, Chris cracked, "We haven't been hardly anywhere because she's been hogging up the plane."

Andrea smiled and added, "We have big plans to go to the beach a lot." They have a house in Panama City, Fla., so instead of a four-hour car ride, it's now a flight of 1 hour and 20 minutes.

"And flying is safer than car travel," Chris said.

Beyond the convenience and safety, Andrea revels in the joy of piloting a plane.

"It's the idea of being able to do something that not a lot of people can say they've done," she said. "I just love being up in the air. The world's a whole lot more beautiful from the sky."

Chris gestured toward Annalise and Drew and noted the family's window of opportunity for such trips is closing all too fast.

"I wanted us to do this now," he said, "so as they got to this age, old enough to be in the plane, we could fly to places and do more stuff as a family."

Then he pointed to Annalise and added, "The other reason I'm really glad Andrea did this is my daughter made the comment one time, about a year ago, when we were talking about going somewhere, and she was talking about being the co-pilot and Drew being the pilot, and I was like, 'Why do you got to be the co-pilot?' She said, 'It's because I'm the girl.' So I was really glad that Andrea did this."

Andrea offered further perspective.

"I was an only child, and my daddy always told me I could do whatever I wanted," she said. "Deer hunting, driving a tractor, it didn't matter that I was a girl. I want her to know that she can do that too."

As for Drew, he likes the novelty of the situation.

"I honestly don't know anybody else whose mom is a pilot," he said, "especially at my school."

Andrea's eyes widened as she asked, "So are you trying to say I'm cool?"

Drew shook his head: "Uh-uh."

"I think you're cool," Annalise interjected.

Andrea replied, "Ahhh, thanks, babe."

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