Did you know 25% of Americans are afraid to fly? Imagine piloting a plane on your own. Or doing barrel rolls (technically called aerobatics). That’s exactly what Beth Stanton does!
Tell us a bit about yourself!
My name is Beth and I’m originally from Connecticut and now live in Modesto, California. Earning my pilot’s license six years ago literally turned by life upside down. I’m in my forties and for the past 20 years have owned a successful bodywork and yoga therapy practice. I’m now an aviation journalist, fly in aerobatic competitions and am a coach who helps women take risks to reinvent themselves.
I’ll ‘fess up to being a social butterfly adrenaline junkie who requires lots of quiet, alone time. I’m kind of a weird combination of Type-A extrovert and deeply introspective introvert. Long walks staring at trees and sniffing flowers recharges my nonstop-action-adventure batteries.
When did you first become interested in flying?
Seven years ago, totally out of the blue. I woke up thinking, ‘it would be cool to be a pilot.’ I had never even been in a small airplane before! After a friend took me for a flight in a Cessna 172, I marched into the flight school and signed up for lessons. A little over a year later, I had my license.
You became a licensed private pilot and then decided to learn aerobatics. What made you take that next step?
Because I was scared. Seriously. For your private pilot’s license, you don’t have to actually demonstrate how to recover from an inadvertent spin. You memorize the procedure.
When I learned how to whitewater kayak, it took many, many attempts to master rolling up after flipping over. I wondered how in the hell I could actually pull off “unspinning” a plane for the first time in an emergency situation just from a memorized checklist. I decided to face my fear and found an instructor to teach me. I was astonished to discover that it was the most fun I ever had in my life!
How does one learn to spin and flip a plane?
You get into a two-seat aerobatic-capable airplane with an instructor and just do it. They demonstrate a maneuver and then it’s your turn. You can also watch videos and read books for research purposes, but actually doing it is the only way to learn.
What are some of the maneuvers you can do?
Pretty much all aerobatic maneuvers are varying combinations of loops, rolls, turns and spins that can be flown in all four axes. In regular “straight and level flying” you fly horizontal and upright. In aerobatics, you can fly straight up, down, sideways or inverted.
As a beginner, you start off doing simple loops, rolls and spins. As you advance, you fly more complex figures like a roll on top of a loop (try getting your head around that one.) It seems very complicated at first, but like anything, it gets easier as you gain skill.
Tell us about your first solo flight doing acrobatics!
It was on May 18, 2014. My coach had been in the plane with me for two years for training flights and as safety pilot during contests. When both he and I felt confident with my ability to recover from any botched maneuver that I might get into, it was finally time.
Honestly, I was not concerned about the aerobatic part. It’s the landing that can be the trickiest part of any flight! It was exhilarating to porpoise around the sky all by myself (he was on the ground with a radio, just in case.) The landing was just fine.
Now you flying in aerobatic competitions! Tell us about that!
There are about 450 pilots that fly aerobatic competition each year in the United States. About 30-40 pilots fly at any given regional contest. The U.S. National Aerobatic Championships are held in Wisconsin and a different country hosts the World Aerobatic Championships each year.
Since there is no advantage being male or female when you’re flying airplanes, men and women compete together. Only six percent of pilots are women and it’s even a smaller percentage that flies competition aerobatics, so I compete mostly against guys.
Judges watching from the ground score three contest flights that consist of prescribed routines like figure skating. Each pilot starts with a score of 10 and points are deducted for any deviation from perfection on any given figure. It’s an exacting sport, with 1 point deducted for every 5 degrees off in heading, pitch, bank or yaw. Since you’re moving in all dimensions at once, the deductions can add up quickly!
Categories span beginner to elite: Primary, Sportsman, Intermediate, Advanced and Unlimited. You don’t have to move up a category if you don’t want to and Sportsman is the most popular category. A lot depends upon how much time and money a pilot can devote to training plus the type of plane that they fly.
Categories higher than Sportsman require a higher-performance, stronger airplane to power the maneuvers and handle the g-forces. These planes are also more expensive!
Have you ever had any ‘close calls’?
Nope, and hopefully never will. Aerobatics pushes both plane and pilot to their respective limits. You must constantly monitor the airplane’s systems to be sure they are operating properly. We wear fast-deploying emergency parachutes in case of a catastrophic failure. Jumping out is always an option and this actually does save lives.
This type of flying is both mentally challenging and physically demanding. The g-forces can make you stupid or gray or black out. Gravity and physics always win, so total focus is required to keep track of where you are in space and your height above the ground.
Flying aerobatics is literally like driving your own three-dimensional roller coaster in the sky and the euphoria of this freedom of movement is hard to describe. It’s ironic that this absolute freedom comes at the price of absolute discipline. There is a saying, “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”
How has this affected your insurance premiums? 😉
Ha! Some people assume that aerobatic pilots are reckless daredevils with a death wish. Nothing could be further from the truth. Aerobatics is about flying safely with precision and control. Of course, there is inherent risk in any type of flying, but there is also risk driving on the freeway. You stay safe by mitigating risk as much as possible by making sure the plane and your skills are in top shape.
People laugh and don’t believe me when I tell them that I’m an extremely conservative pilot. I have a policy that if I’m even just thinking about whether or not I should fly, I don’t.
When you told the people in your life about this, how did they react?
When I decided to learn how to fly, people thought it was kind of crazy, but cool. The universal response to aerobatics is excitement and a kind of awe. There is something about the dream of flight that inspires people. When I give talks, afterwards people approach me with animation and fire in their eyes. My mission is to motivate people to live a life that excites them. Imagine a world where everyone is awake and alive!
Has aerobatics affected other areas of your life?
Absolutely. I have decided if I can do this I can do anything. People may think, ‘Beth may be brave and daring, but I could never do anything like that.’ It’s actually more like when Katherine Hepburn said, “Oh, I’m scared all the time, I just act as if I’m not.”
Learning to fly was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Partway through training I almost quit because I was struggling and thought I didn’t have the talent. Flying has taught me to not listen to bullshit limiting beliefs and to not fear failing. You can do anything if you persevere.
What books/websites/tools/resources have helped you do this?
The International Aerobatic Club (iac.org) has all kinds of information for getting started in aerobatics and flying competition. I showed up at a local chapter meeting in 2012 and was immediately taken under their wing. It’s such a niche sport that if you have an interest and passion, people are eager to help you. My coaches and fellow aerobatic pilots have been invaluably supportive. I couldn’t be doing this without them.
What have you learned from this that ANY of us could apply to our daily lives?
Make a leap of faith and follow whatever excites you even if it seems random or absurd. You never know what hidden talent may be lurking inside you that propels you into an entirely new version of your life!
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Beth! Do you guy have any questions for her?