Newsroom to Hangar, Dreams Intact
Photo illustration by Bettina Edelstein

Manhattan apartment, river view. Job at a major newspaper. Sounds swell, but I was grinding my gears. Home was 580 square feet shared with my husband, the space closing in on us. At work I was running in place.

I’d known for years that I needed a change, but what? I had no idea, until a revived passion propelled me in a new direction. Eighteen months later, I’d find myself moving to Vermont to learn how to fix airplanes.

The flight, in a Warrior at my old home field in Connecticut, was brief, cut short by rain. Yet it was enough for me to know: I wanted to be a pilot again.

It started with the window. Living on the 30th floor, I’d watch the parade of aircraft along the route pilots call the Hudson River Corridor. One shiny late November day, with another birthday looming, I heard the familiar drone of a passing plane and looked out, eyes latched to wings.

“It’s been a long time,” I said to my husband, Bill, “but I think I want to go up in an airplane again.”

I didn’t mean another schlep to Florida on an airliner to visit my mother. I meant a jaunt in a single-engine Piper Warrior, what I used to fly. I’d earned a pilot’s license in my late 20s and adored flying, but gave it up after a few years for grad school, career building, striving to be a successful urban professional. My precious pilot logbook had been buried in a box for two decades.

“I just want to go up once,” I said. “Just to see.” To see, maybe, if the spark was still there.

The flight, in a Warrior at my old home field in Connecticut, was brief, cut short by rain. Yet it was enough for me to know: I wanted to be a pilot again.

I had a lot of catching up to do, on the ground and in the air. The airport was two and a half hours away—three trains and a taxi—but if the weekend weather was good, I’d be there.

I had literally reached for the sky, reclaimed a joy I’d forsaken, and that gave me an electric sense of purpose, enabling me to muster the guts to take a chance on a different path.

My flight instructor, Augie, was a gentle, silver-haired Korean and Vietnam War vet who had been an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force. He ran the flight school and was often in the maintenance hangars, where I followed him like a hungry hound, eager for scraps of info on what made airplanes tick.

One afternoon, after we’d tied down the Warrior, I asked a question that had been circling in my mind for weeks. “Would it be crazy,” I said, “for me to go for an A&P?” That’s the FAA certification for an airframe and powerplant mechanic. It requires 1,900 hours of training in a program that can take 18 months to complete.

“It’s not crazy,” Augie said, “if that’s what you really want to do.”

My experience with tools and machinery was limited; what I knew was how to manipulate words on a computer screen in a newsroom. A college English major, I’d managed to skip physics and trigonometry in high school. But my contact with airplanes had me yearning to understand their workings hands-on. Never mind that only 3% of A&P mechanics are women. I couldn’t turn away.

Meanwhile, I kept flying. The signoff to go out on my own, as pilot in command, came from my next instructor, Dave, at an airport closer to my home. A retired police lieutenant with 40-plus years of aviation experience, he pushed me to hone my aeronautical skills—and to find a balance between rigor and letting go. “Train hard, fight easy,” he’d say.

Over the past year, I’ve crawled under airplanes with a screwdriver and inside their tails with a flashlight. I’ve squished blood-red grease into wheel bearings, scrubbed engine parts with a toothbrush, shaped sheet metal with foot-long files, and wielded a rivet gun (though a Rosie I’ll never be).

I had literally reached for the sky, reclaimed a joy I’d forsaken, and that gave me an electric sense of purpose, enabling me to muster the guts to take a chance on a different path. One route led to another, and to Vermont, where I’m now finishing my A&P studies. In the drafty old school hangar, the pace is brisk, the standards exacting.“When you do this program,”says our chief instructor, Moses, “you basically put your life on hold.”

On hold, yet pressing forward. Over the past year, I’ve crawled under airplanes with a screwdriver and inside their tails with a flashlight. I’ve squished blood-red grease into wheel bearings, scrubbed engine parts with a toothbrush, shaped sheet metal with foot-long files, and wielded a rivet gun (though a Rosie I’ll never be). It’s physically and mentally demanding work. I come home dirty and tired—and exhilarated.

My fellow students—all guys—are at ease with tools and know their way around cars, trucks, tractors, guns, and, in one case, military helicopters. I’m the newbie who’d never held a socket wrench before, which has meant extra hurdles for me. But my classmates, along with my teachers, have graciously guided me. And at least I’m not the only one who’s gone belly to ground to hunt for a dropped washer or growled over a bolt that seemed impossible to reach. For better or worse, there’s always an answer to the puzzles we face, and there’s a certain comfort in that.

It takes optimism, along with patience and perseverance, to try to make something whole again. Even if it’s just a starter motor. Or a life.

2 Comments

  • Julie Rogers
    Posted December 15, 2013 2:26 pm 0Likes

    Bettina Edelstein, it’s been many many (too many) years since we hung together as young teenagers, laughing in 8th grade English class when we discovered the plumbing in Shangrila was made in Akron, Ohio. What I knew then was that you were an amazingly brilliant and beautiful girl. Clearly, that hasn’t changed. I’m thrilled for you for taking a leap in a new career direction, dirty fingernails and all! Inspiring to say the least! Enjoy my dear.

  • Stephen Miller
    Posted February 11, 2014 11:36 pm 0Likes

    I don’t know why I was astounded to learn of Bettina’s new direction in life. I watch her turn from a brilliant editor who, among other things, hosted a weekly podcast where she often do more about the inner workings of the tech industry than many of her guests. So once again, I’m flabbergasted to see her master “something completely different.”

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