“Make sure you’re buckled in tight,” said Patty Wagstaff. I peer over the edge of the cockpit to see Patty smiling up at me, the poster child of confidence. I can barely stutter out a response as I cinch my harness the tiniest bit further, barely breathing but definitely secure. Patty, my aerobatic flight instructor that day, is a three-time US Aerobatic Champion, Olympic medalist, and world-renowned aerobatic show and competition pilot. I have seen Patty perform stunts for a crowd of over a 1,000 spectators in her Extra 260 stunt plane; stunts that would send most people to a hospital or plummeting into the ground, but she is not most people.
Patty now owns and operates an aerobatics school in St. Augustine, Florida for students looking to perform loops, barrel rolls, and Cuban 8s with the same precision and grace as she. I am one of these students. Four hours of driving brought me to her school and I am eager to learn from the best. My flight package includes five hours of instructed flying as well as five hours of ground school, certainly not as interesting but still vital. We are both secure in our seats, we taxi, and we are off the ground. I quickly become aware of the sheer power this machine holds, it takes all my training and experience to stay in control of the aircraft and my nerves. Sitting in the front seat of an airplane, cruising at around 200 miles per hour with a world-renowned aerobatic pilot behind me, is the most intimidating and exhilarating experience of my life.
My first loop. I am off heading. No good. A roll. Wings are not straight. Anyone who says aerobatics is not a sport, is painfully uninformed of the focus, practice, and physical strength needed to perform these maneuvers with any sort of accuracy. Thank God she cannot see my face because I am smiling like an idiot through most of the flight, grimacing through my mistakes, but so determined to make them right. She asks me every few minutes how I am feeling, nausea and sickness are common after intensive aerobatic work, and I hurriedly assure her that I am perfectly fine and ask for another chance to perfect that spin. After our final hour of aerobatic flying, I hear Patty’s voice calling the control tower at St. Augustine airport announcing our intent to land and I am brought back to the sad reality that my time flying with Patty is over.
This experience further solidified my desire to follow an aviation career path, maybe someday becoming the inspiration to others that Patty is to me.
Written by: Abbie Kellett, second-year student & Basic Communications major