by Sandy Parks
Not only is this National Women’s History month, but March 7-13 is also Women of Aviation Worldwide Week. We all know the story of aviatrix Amelia Earhart, but what about other women in aviation who have accomplished historic "firsts?" As writers, we have to consider more than just an achievement by itself, though. We have to tell the story of a character’s life and what molded them into a successful adult. What drove them to achieve? What personality traits motivate a person to do their best or what failures pushed them forward with ever more determination?
While I could have chosen a dozen women in aviation, for this blog I picked Patty Wagstaff, an airshow performer and aerobatic instructor. That simple description is perhaps a misnomer of the life of this rather extraordinary pilot and woman. A woman who has played successfully in a male dominated world (less than 6% of pilots are women), and gained their respect. Her story displays the perfect characteristics on which to build heroines for our novels.
Not too many years ago, I’d heard of Patty Wagstaff, but had never seen her fly. Eventually, at a small airshow in Florida, I caught her performance and was impressed at the aggressive and amazing way she handled her aircraft. I also noticed a young girl, enthralled enough to collect an autograph from Patty. Who wouldn't want to fly fast upside down in a playground called the sky? Gotta love women who do cool, challenging things. I set out to learn more about Patty and discovered why she makes the perfect novel heroine.
|Young girl stands in front of Wagstaff's plane with a signed autograph.|
Patty’s grew up in an aviation world. Her father flew for Japan Air Lines. Life in a flying family means travel, usually lots of it. Her bio talks about trips to Southeast Asia and Europe, and living in Australia and Alaska. Having lived for a short time as a kid in Alaska, I can already sense the world of adventure around her. Her family life and specifically her father, acted as her first mentor. Memories of her father trusting her with flying a plane set her on the track to being a pilot. Even her sister became a Captain for Continental Airlines. So authors, don’t forget the need for a good mentor or mentoring environment in your stories.
Often times, there is a mitigating factor that shoves or forces a character to take action and push themselves forward (ie. leave their old world and change so there is no going back). For Patty, it came while working in Alaska on a job that required her to travel to remote villages. Remote in Alaska means reachable by aircraft and frequently in challenging flying conditions. Her point of no return happened when a plane she chartered crashed on takeoff. In the future, she wanted control. She learned to fly, hired a plane with its pilot (he later became her husband), and did her job. She later went on to gain more ratings and even learned to fly helicopters. In a novel, this is the part of her life where she is gaining the skills for what is to come, and for Patty, her successes were just starting.
|Patty taxiing out for takeoff at airshow in Florida|
Driven to push the limits of her skills, she took up flying aerobatics and five years after getting her license, she qualified for the US Aerobatic Team. In 1991, she became the first woman to win the US National Aerobatic Championship (and again in 1992 & 93). Her Extra 260 aircraft is on display at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in the Pioneers of Flight gallery on the second floor. You have to look up to see it, as I discovered when I took this photo. Note, it is appropriately upside down.
|Wagstaff Extra 260 hanging in Smithsonian Air & Space Museum|
|Close up of aircraft showing Patty's name|
But what does our heroine do when she’s not flying in airshows and competing for championships? How about stunt flying for television and major motion pictures? She is a member of the Motion Picture Pilots Association and the United Stuntwomen’s Association. She even flew as a demo pilot in shows (Paris Airshow) and locations around the world for an aircraft company.
|A close-up of the tail of Wagstaff's aircraft showing many of the accomplishments and awards|
|Notice she has a CAL FIRE decal on her airshow aircraft (right edge of photo)|
Of course, we have to give our heroines time off. So, what does an airshow/aerobatic instructor pilot do to get away from it all? Foremost for writers building a character background, she stays in character. It is rather clear from her life bio that she is adventurous and to continue that lifestyle, she stays in shape by working out. For down to earth speed and fun, she rides motorcycles and hunter/jumper equestrian horses. If that isn’t enough, she finds time to write a column in a major aviation magazine about her experiences.
While celebrating women who have made their mark in history, think about how it relates to your novels and how you portray women. Many times we are afraid to allow them to do the incredible, believing they won’t seem like "real" women. But as you can see from Patty’s history, what makes a successful and strong heroine, is that they actually exceed our expectations about what is “normal.” So go ahead and make that heroine amazing.
Read more about Patty and see detailed photos of her aircraft on her website.