Monday, January 28, 2013

Fresh Tickets: The Best Way to Serve Pilots...is to Be One Yourself

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

We all know about EAA's tireless work providing the experimental and homebuilt communities with vital information they need, and NBAA's work advocating for business aviation is second to none. But when it comes to serving the entire population of general aviation pilots by providing every shred of information we aviators need to know over a wide spectrum of topics and issues, nobody does it better than AOPA. Nobody.

I make no secret about my respect for AOPA. The idea of being a private pilot in these United States without an AOPA membership is, to me, borderline irresponsible. It's sort of uncanny how well that organization seems to understand just what we pilots need, what we want, and what gets us excited.

Here in part two of my "Fresh Tickets" series, I introduce you to Kristen Seaman, AOPA'S Communications Coordinator, and we find out why the people at AOPA HQ just seem to really understand pilots. It's because most of them are pilots, and as pilots, it's common knowledge that we all share identical DNA. They think like we do, they like the same things we like, and they used to hang on the airport fence as children, just like we did as kids. There is a culture of aviation passion within that organization – a culture that explains why AOPA seeks out special people to serve their membership – and those people are usually either current licensed pilots, or want to be very soon.

Kristen Seaman
Seaman's job at AOPA includes assisting in composing press releases, editorials, and newsletters, as well as maintaining the budget for the Communications Department. But she also serves as a point of contact for media outlets, outside organizations, and members seeking information and materials to help them share general aviation with their communities. But what Seaman really enjoys is meeting AOPA members directly. "The best part of my job," she explained, "is traveling to the major air shows around the country where I get to interact with members face-to-face and talk to prospective pilots about flight training and how they can get started."

And one thing she knew early-on as an AOPA employee is that the best way to talk to pilots was to become one herself:
Seaman first found the desire to earn her private pilot's ticket while studying meteorology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "All of my classes were aviation weather oriented, so we focused a lot on different weather factors that would impact aircraft, like icing, turbulence, and decreased visibility. I was so fascinated by weather that I wanted to be up in the air, experiencing it for myself (albeit not caught in the middle of a thunderstorm, of course). When I’d fly commercially, I spent all of my time looking at the shape of the clouds and thinking about their composition and the type of precipitation that they held. I very much wanted to be up flying next to them myself one day," she said.
After being hired at AOPA in December, 2011, she found out they owned two Cessna 172S airplanes that were used for a multitude of tasks within the organization, one of these tasks being to serve as a training airplane for employees. She also found out that AOPA encouraged everyone at HQ to earn their ticket if they didn't already have one. There was a three-month rule that says employees could begin flight training after their initial “probation period” was over. But waiting 90 days was out of the question for Seaman:
"I was far too anxious to start," said Seaman enthusiastically, "and ended up getting special permission to begin training about a month after I got hired. When someone presents you with the opportunity to learn how to fly, it seems silly not to take advantage of it. I also knew that flight training would help with my job duties. It took me about 90 hours to complete my Private Pilot Certificate using a CFI who just happened to also be an AOPA employee, and we managed to work the training into our lunch hour or before/after work. I feel very fortunate to work for an organization that is so committed to increasing the pilot population that they will help pay for a prospective pilot to earn their initial pilot certificate. Because of this and AOPA having its own training aircraft, costs remained relatively low. This benefit to my job has allowed me to connect with our members on a new level and make me an ambassador for general aviation, as well."
But while it was AOPA that allowed Seaman to pursue her ticket, her schedule there became one more challenge to add to the normal challenges any student pilot faces. "Sure, there were absolutely a few times where I felt discouraged," Seaman said. "Each time came before a big milestone, such as solo, solo cross country, the knowledge test, and my practical test. Almost like clockwork, I was approaching the solo, solo cross country, and practical test milestones before our three major air shows: Sun ’n Fun, Oshkosh, and AOPA Summit. The problem was that being away from flying for a month or two for each show would set me back even further in my training and I would have to fly a few lessons before I got back up to the level I had reached before the shows. The most difficult hurdle to overcome was right before my initial solo. It was so hard to visualize the end of my training and I was feeling defeated. Going to Sun ’n Fun and talking to so many pilots who were eager to share the stories of their first solo really motivated and excited me to get back and finish. They also gave me a lot of advice on landings, which I was struggling with the most. When I got back, I was so anxious to get back up and apply what I had learned that in just a few short lessons, everything clicked and I was soon flying around the pattern alone. After crossing that milestone, I finally started to see the light at the end of the tunnel."

When the time came to finally pass the checkride and become a pilot, Seaman recognized that she had obtained far more than just the freedom to fly:
"I would be lying if I said being a licensed pilot didn’t make me feel like I’ve reached a certain level of “coolness,” which sounds silly to say at 25," she said. "Finishing this training has given me a sense of confidence that I never knew I had. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done, but I feel like the training contributed so much more than just my ability to fly. It improved my study habits, driving abilities, patience, and time management. It has given me the self-assurance to pursue other goals that I had never thought possible."
Now that this motivated young woman has finished her primary flight training, she has one piece of advice for anyone interesting in earning their private ticket. "Take your time finding the right flight instructor," Seaman says emphatically, "because that can make the difference between sticking with your flight training or not. My instructor and I went through a lot in the past year and I cannot stress enough how important it is to find someone who understands your personality and knows how to handle you in your best and worst times. All in all, a good instructor lets you make mistakes, holds you accountable, and knows how to calm you down when they see you getting worked up or overwhelmed."

She has a fresh ticket, now what:
"The first goal," Seaman says, "is to take some of my friends flying so that they can understand what I was up to all those times I had to decline getting together with them. I want to experience new airports and airspace, especially the DC Special Flight Rules area, which seems daunting right now. I’d love to be part of a group that flies out to different breakfast or lunch locations, as well. I actually do have a couple things that I really want to practice more, one of them being night flying. I met my requirements for night training, but I've never soloed at night, so I don’t feel that I am quite up to par. I also want to practice flying near max weight capacity, so that when I do take friends flying, I’ll have a better feel for the performance of the plane with extra weight. I also recently took park in my first Pilots N Paws rescue mission – flying four puppies to a new home in New York – and I look forward to continuing to give back and using my license for the benefit of others.”
So the next time you find yourself in the AOPA booth at one of the big air shows, and the person you are talking to seems to really understand why you fly, there's a very high likelihood that the AOPA staffer will probably have a pilot's license in their possession. And if they are smiling wide or possibly even jumping for joy, you might have just met Kristen Seaman.