Taking her first flight aboard a single-engine plane was an experience 12-year-old Ameliah Knopp of Boonsboro, Va., won’t soon forget.
“It was really cool,” said Knopp, who is a big fan of rollercoasters, but was queasy at first on the runway, and then again when the pilot of the single-engine aircraft, Liberty University School of Aeronautics graduate Manny Amaya, let her mom, Heather Knopp, steer.
“When we were riding around, taxiing, I was getting a little worried, but then when we got off I was like ‘Yeah,’ I was OK,” she said. “Then he let my mom steer and I kind of got sweaty palms.”
Following pre-flight briefings, a steady stream of girls and women took 45-minute aerial tours of the area throughout the day, on Saturday at the Women Can Fly event held at Liberty’s Freedom Aviation Jet Center at Lynchburg Regional Airport.
Susan Brogan, a member of Ninety-Nines, Inc., the International Organization of Women Pilots, serves as committee chair of Women Can Fly, a first-year volunteer organization whose mission is to promote women of all ages to fly.
“Our mission is to encourage women to have more possibility for aviation careers, particularly pilots,” she said, noting currently only six percent of the 31,000 active aviators in America are women. “There are more women flying for the military in combat, so we’re part of the mainstream now, but not as much as we’d like to be.”
She said retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dave Young, Dean of Liberty’s SOA, was instrumental in the committee’s planning efforts to bring Women Can Fly to Lynchburg. It was the final of three such events held this month in Virginia.
“He and the pilots who came are very key to the success of the event and Liberty’s been wonderful in their support,” she said of the event sponsored by the Virginia Department of Aviation, Liberty’s SOA, and Freedom Aviation. “Thank you, Liberty University, for giving us the stage to hold another successful event.”
Altogether, seven planes, piloted by School of Aeronautics graduates and independent owners, took 106 participants on flights throughout the day.
In addition to flights, visitors also got to take tours of the Lynchburg Control Tower and attend seminars that covered “how to become a pilot” and “careers in aviation” at the nearby School of Aeronautics. There, they had an opportunity to try out simulators under supervision from team members of the Liberty Belles, a women’s flight team that recently returned from competing in the 37th annual All-Women’s Air Race Classic.
The event was inspirational to females interested in aviation, such as Knopp, who thought if her mom could do it, certainly she could, too.
“Coming and seeing all of the controls and stuff, it looks really complicated,” Ameliah said. “But it feels like it wouldn’t be complicated. I could consider it for a future occupation.”
“It was awesome,” Heather added. “She thought it was great and (Amaya) told me I did very well. We’ve flown commercial, but with this, you feel it more, you sense it more. You’re not just sitting in a bus. You’re experiencing the whole up and down, left and right, the air.”
When she steered the plane as it was making a steady ascent, she felt empowered.
“You’re holding it and you can feel it, they say, flying by the seat of your pants,” she said. “That really is what you feel. You’re feeling it in your body as you’re flying. It’s really kind of fun.”
The flights took passengers out to Smith Mountain Lake, north to the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, back along the ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and over Madison Heights before flying over the James River and downtown Lynchburg.
“I just thought it was fantastic,” said Rebecca Swanson, a rising senior at Dallas Baptist University who’s doing a summer internship at Liberty’s Victory FM. “It was beautiful while I was up there with the mountains and being able to see it all. I’ve been on bigger planes, but this was my first smaller-plane experience. It was on my bucket list, so I just wanted to come and check it out.”
She had no intentions of actually becoming a pilot until talking with Federal Aviation Administration volunteer Margaret Morrison, who worked one of the display booths and encouraged her to give it a try.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned more about flying recreationally, so that’s definitely appealing to me,” Swanson said. “I’m going to do a couple more of the tours today and a couple more seminars and see if it’s something I could be serious about.”
Girls and women who went on one of the free flights offered throughout the day received a First Flight Certificate that read, “For daring to take her first flight in a small plane that could lead to a big aviation adventure.”
Sarah Morris, an SOA instructor who coached the Liberty Belles and co-piloted the eighth-place plane in this month’s Air Race Classic has dreams of taking her skills into the mission field.
“Right now, the path I’m on is taking me to Kenya, I’m hoping in a couple of years,” said Morris, who expects to fly a single-engine Cessna. “I work as a mechanic here right now and I just need to build more experience as a mechanic and I should be ready to go. I can’t wait. I wish I could be there now.”
Aviation has opened the door for her and many other women in her field to spread their wings and take leaps of faith.
For the organizers and volunteers, seeing the smiles on the faces of the girls who took their first flights made it all worthwhile.
“They’ve kind of had these anxious looks about their face when they get on the airplane and when they come down, they’re just ear-to-ear grins with happy parents,” Brogan said. “That’s what makes all of this worth it. That’s the face of aviation that we want to promote.”