A GIFT With Wings

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What compelled 45 women from Anchorage to Chesterfield, N.H., to trek to Vernon, Texas, a tiny north-Texas town where there are more trucks than cars?

All had heard about a unique program called Girls in Flight Training (GIFT) Academy that provides free ground and flight instruction for women in all stages of flight training. The second annual event was held Nov. 3-10 at the Wilbarger County Airport.

According to Patti Shannon, the promise of free flight training was certainly a big draw, but she and many others were in pursuit of something that can't be logged.

"I needed a serious boost of confidence," said Shannon, who soloed at GIFT and plans to finish her Private Pilot's Certificate by yearend. "Flying is something I've always dreamed of doing. I just needed an environment where everything seemed possible. Being among such a supportive, encouraging group of women was truly priceless."

During the weeklong Academy, the women received ground and flight instruction free of charge. They were required to pay for fuel, which was sold at a reduced price, and $50 per hour to cover aircraft maintenance. Several arrived with their own aircraft to use for training. Eight instructors, including Latimer, her husband Lawrence, daughter Tamara and granddaughter Amanda, donated their time and expertise, flying with GIFT attendees from dawn until well into the night. Latimer even arranged three daily meals and no- or low-cost housing for all of the attendees.

Latimer conceived the GIFT Academy in 2011 after years of being baffled by the lack of growth in the female pilot population. A designated examiner, instructor, corporate pilot and A&P since 1974, Latimer created the event to provide a supportive atmosphere for women to work on their ratings and return home with a renewed determination to pursue their dreams. Last year, 12 women attended; this year, Latimer had nearly 100 inquiries from potential participants.

"All we ask is that the women come with a good attitude and desire to fly," Latimer said. "I was amazed at the energy and excitement this group generated."

Latimer's secondary goal with GIFT is to determine what is stopping women from finishing their flight training. "If we can figure out what's halting their training, perhaps we can work on solutions that will lead to more women attaining their rating and pursuing more," Latimer said. "Our vision is simple: We want to see more women flying."

Vernon's remoteness is one of GIFT's greatest advantages, according to Latimer. Wilbarger County Airport is a quiet, uncontrolled airport with two long runways. The town's small size offers few distractions, allowing the women to focus solely on flying.

To break up the intensity of the week, Latimer arranged several surprises. Rides in a Robinson R44 helicopter, aerobatics in an open-cockpit Skybolt, and a lesson in landing a tailwheel Decathlon gave the women exposure to different aspects of aviation and provided some unforgettable memories.

"This is better than summer camp," enthused Cindy Coleman, who soloed during her stay at GIFT.

This year, the women at GIFT had some special help from Teresa Guillemot, founder of The Practical Aviator. Guillemot, who is an advanced ground instructor and holds a master's degree in curriculum development, donated 50 copies of her Aviator's Practical Organizer to GIFT participants. She spent the week helping the women organize their study materials and coaching them on how to prepare for their oral exam.

The Aviator's Practical Organizer (APO) breaks down the practical test standards into easily digestible sections, allowing the student to build detailed information as his or her training progresses. By the time the student is ready for the check ride, the knowledge required for the oral exam is in one convenient location: the APO.

"When you are working on a rating, there is so much information out there, including a great deal of specific information about your aircraft. My goal was to relieve one pain point the oral exam and make the process easier and less stressful," said Guillemot.

By week's end, GIFT has racked up some impressive stats: Approximately 200 flight hours of instruction were given, four first solos achieved, and two attained their Private Pilot's Certificate. The local AME gave five free medical exams and at least four women passed their written knowledge tests. Michele Bigbee of Manhattan Beach, Calif., who attained her private at last year's GIFT, returned in 2012 to work on her instrument rating. Last year, she rode the airlines to Texas; this year, she arrived in her very own Cessna 206.

Where does the GIFT Academy go from here?

"I'd like to see other flight schools adopt the concept," said Latimer. "One of my goals is to help seed new GIFT academies around the country."

For more information about the GIFT Academy, visit GirlsInFlight.org.