MS. REBECCA SHEIR
I'm Rebecca Sheir and welcome back to "Metro Connection." Our theme in this week of rough and tumble politicking is Ups and Downs. But we're going to take a break from the shutdown now to meet a woman whose job takes her up and down and upside down every single day. Marianne Buckley is a flight instructor, one who specializes in a type of flight not a lot of people have the stomach for -- or the skills. She's an aerobatics pilot, one of just a few women in the country who can claim that title. Jacob Fenston headed out to Potomac Air Field, south of Washington, to see what it takes to master this unusual skill set.
MR. JACOB FENSTON
I’m not exactly afraid of flying, but it gives me pause when Marianne Buckley says this.
MS. MARIANNE BUCKLEY
If we do need to jump, this is your rip cord right here.
I’m strapped into the back of a tiny two-seater airplane. It's specially designed to withstand the stress and strain of doing acrobatic loops and twists in the air.
I'll unlatch the door. It's easier for me to jump out first. And then you jump and just hold your body out straight.
It's just in case, she says. We probably won't need to jump out of the plane midflight.
Actually it's not dangerous if you know what you're doing.
And Buckley does know what she's doing. She's been teaching for about 20 years.
It just takes practice.
Before we take off she does a walk around, checking all the moving parts on the plane.
Alternator belt looks good. Prop, you want to make sure you don't have an nicks on it. Looks good.
So up we go for my first aerobatics lesson.
(unintelligible) prop. All right. Are you ready?
Okay. Here we go.
We're taking off from Potomac Airfield, just south of the District line in Prince George's County. We slowly climb above the trees and subdivisions, and the world shrinks and flattens out. To the north, the brick and marble of Washington, D.C. is just a blip surrounded by trees and water. In the distance, the blue silhouette of the Appalachian Mountains.
Once we level out, she asks if I want to fly. I take the controls and cautiously bank to the left, then back to the right. Buckley says when she's flying a plane, it's like being a bird. And doing aerobatics, it's like a bird, dancing. The first trick she shows me is a loop. It's pretty much what it sounds like.
A circle up in the sky.
First, you dip the nose of the plane. Then accelerate, and pull up. Suddenly the atmosphere is pushing on my body, the horizon is rotating, and then it disappears, and reappears in the wrong place. Next we do a roll.
I guess people know what a roll is.
Then an Immelmann.
A half a loop and a roll at the top.
Next, a hammerhead.
You go straight up and then one wing goes over the other and coming straight back down.
And finally a Cuban 8.
Which looks like an 8 if you're looking at it from the side.
Buckley points to the little gauge on the dash of the plane. During that first maneuver we experienced a little over three G's -- that's three times the force of gravity. I'm feeling light-headed and queasy. Buckley says that's not unusual. She felt that way when she first tried doing aerobatics.
I had never been upside-down before. The G's took me by surprise, the G forces.
She had to lie down and sleep off the nausea. But she was hooked.
I wanted to be one of the few people who can actually turn an airplane upside down, and be comfortable doing it.
Buckley is one of even fewer women doing aerobatics. She says of the hundreds of students she's taught over the years, just a handful have been female.
MS. ALYSSA MILLER
And I fell in love with just flying upside-down. That was my favorite part.
Alyssa Miller is one of those students. She started doing aerobatics after years of flying small planes.
My dad is a pilot. I think my first flight was when I was two.
But when she started taking flight lessons, there weren't many other women.
My flight instructors were all guys. I had one female instructor, and then it wasn't until I started flying with Marianne that I had another female instructor I would work with.
Only 6 percent of pilots in the United States are women.
They don't necessarily see aviation as an outlet for them, as an opportunity for a job or a hobby.
It's partly just that there aren't a lot of role models -- other women flying planes. But Miller would like to see that change. In fact she's started teaching recently, and her first three students have been women.
Back in the air with Buckley, we're heading down to solid ground, and my stomach is settling, but I'm still dripping cold sweat. Flying aerobatics isn't for the faint-of-heart, or the faint-of-cash. Getting a private pilot's license can cost thousands of dollars in lessons. And mastering the tricks -- especially if you want to compete -- can take hours a day.
I think it's in every pilot's blood to be a pilot. They're going to do everything and anything to go flying, and that was me. It didn't matter how much it cost.
She saved up money for flight classes after college, while working on Capitol Hill. And now she's able to make a living doing what she loves -- teaching others to dance across the sky.
All right. Your taste of aerobatics.
I survived. I'm Jacob Fenston.
Do you want to know what it feels like to fly upside down? Well, we've got a video of Jacob's trip on our website, metroconnection.org.
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