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Marianne Buckley is a flight instructor who specializes in a type of flight not a lot of people have the stomach for — or the skills. She's an aerobatics pilot, and one of just a few women in the country who can claim that title.
"Actually it's not dangerous if you know what you're doing," says Buckley. "You have to go up with someone who actually knows what he or she is doing, to be able to repeat what you've been taught."
And Buckley does know what she's doing. She's been teaching for about 20 years. "It just takes practice," she says.
On a recent Saturday, Buckley took me on my first aerobatics lesson — in fact my first flight in a small aircraft.
We're take 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.
This is what first drew Buckley to flying. "The solitude, the visibility, being on top, it's just gorgeous."
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.
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, then an Immelmann.
After four other maneuvers involving various combinations of rolls and loops, I'm feeling light-headed and queasy. Buckley points to a little gage on the dash of the plane. During that last maneuver we experienced a little over three G's — that's three times the force of gravity. Buckley says that's not unusual to feel sick. She felt that way when she first tried aerobatics.
"I had never been upside-down before," she says. "The G's took me by surprise."
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.
Alyssa Miller is one of those students. "I fell in love with flying upside-down," says Miller. "That was my favorite part."
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."
Indeed, 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 or something like that."
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 each 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 lessons 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.
[Music: "Learning How to Fly" by Tuck & Patty from Learning How to Fly]
Video: Aerobatics Lesson with Marianne Buckley