Persistence, passion key to the education of young pilot |

Persistence, passion key to the education of young pilot

U. Earl Dunn

The flying bug bit her when she was in her early teens and the former McQueen High School student still remembers the exhilaration she felt when her parents would take her to watch the Reno Championship Air Races at Stead airport.

“I knew a desk job wouldn’t suit my personality,” says Jessica Vana, who was then known as Jessica Magee. One of her first jobs as a teen was busing tables at Pinocchio’s in Reno. A lot of pilots used to frequent the restaurant, always talking about their planes.

On her 16th birthday, her parents gave her a basic ground-school aviation book and a package of flight lessons. The diminutive teen was hooked.

“My parents always told me I could do anything and be anything I wanted as I was growing up and my mom, literally, would tell me, ‘Jessica, the sky is the limit. You can be whatever you want to be,'” she says.

Now married to Phil Vana and a new mom of daughter, Adelina, Jessica Vana speaks frankly about her earliest experience with a flight instructor who failed to take her desire to fly seriously. “I found the study of aviation fascinating,” she says. “I was captivated by the way the planes work and studied hard to learn all the components, things like the electronics, brake and fuel systems, the basic aerodynamics, and to be able to apply it in the air was very rewarding.”

But her first flight instructor was not as enthusiastic.

“Everything I learned was from the book and mostly he was up there yickkety-yackking while I was paying him $120 an hour,” she says. “He was very chauvinistic and did not take my desire to fly seriously. He did not teach me navigation which, of course, makes it difficult to find the airport. He told me I would never make it, that I would never be a pilot.”

Vana told her mother who joined her daughter and the instructor on her next flight.

“When we landed, my mom fired him on the spot. I got another instructor and it was wonderful. Difference between night and day,” she says.

The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association encourages student pilots to shop around for the right flight instructor. Students want-high quality interactions with their instructors and, as they progress, want to feel part of a community of pilots instead of a lone student. Robert Goyer, editor of Flying Magazine, is more direct. “Customers,” he writes, “expect to be treated well and to get what they’re paying for, which is to get the thrill and reward of learning to fly. They should expect nothing less.”

Upon graduation from McQueen High School, Vana enrolled at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.

“I did very well there,” she says, noting she left with a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical science, a minor in aviation business administration, a soon-to-be husband, a private pilot’s license covering both multi-engine and high-performance aircraft, her instrument and commercial ratings.

But Embry-Riddle was no piece of cake, she says.

Nearly 90 percent of incoming students in her freshman year were male and a few of the instructors there were not sold on a woman wanting to become a pilot.

“I had one instructor who said women shouldn’t even drive cars, let alone planes,” Vana says. “The dropout rate was quite high and I found it to be a harsh environment for young women. But, today I see things are changing. There do seem to be a lot more opportunities today for women than a decade ago.”

Her husband also has multiple pilot licenses and is a certified flight instructor. When both relocated to the Reno/Sparks area, they were going to start their own flight school. But their timing was not good. “It was shortly after 9/11 and, at the last minute, our insurance company backed out.”

Today, both serve in ministry at Summit Christian Church in Sparks, but both believe their careers someday will be airborne once again. As for their year-old daughter, when asked if she, too, will someday learn to fly, Phil responds, “You bet. And that will be awesome.”


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