Barb MacLeod

  • E-Mail this Article
  • View Printable Article
  • Text size:

    • A
    • A
    • A

Barb MacLeod led a life of adventure exploring and mapping Mayan caves in the jungles of Belize that hadn't seen human life in 1,500 years, but she was terrified of flying. She confronted and conquered the phobia, and is now a full-time teacher of primary and aerobatic flight instruction in Austin, Texas. She also earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology, specializing in ancient Maya hieroglyphic decipherment. In this month's Profile, Barb talks with AVweb's Joe Godfrey about how she overcame the fear of flying, teaching aerobatic instruction, the day she spun an Aerobat through 52 consecutive rotations, the songs she has written about flying, and what's in those caves.

Barb MacLeodBarb MacLeod was born June 10, 1943, in New York City. She explored her interest in caving as a geology major at Antioch College, but she preferred working in the dirt to working in the classroom. Since opportunities for women in geology were rare, she switched to anthropology, and now holds a Ph.D. from the University of Texas.

Her education took her through plenty of aviation-heavy towns, including St. Louis, Yellow Springs (near Dayton) and Seattle, but the death of two friends in a canoeing accident had left Barb with a flying phobia, which turned commuting to archaeological digs into long and frustrating trips. After a bus trip from Austin to Raleigh-Durham in 1993, she decided to get help to deal with the phobia. As the phobia passed, she enrolled in a ground school, intending only to separate myth from math. The school offered an introductory flight, which she took, and it became the flight that changed her life. In 1993 she went from a fear of flying through primary flight instruction and was doing loops and stalls by the fall of that year.

She still finds time to publish as one of only a couple dozen specialists on ancient Maya hieroglyphic decipherment, and still finds time to compose, record and perform songs about aviation, but her full-time job and passion is teaching flying at First Class Aviation in Austin, Tex. She's also an active member of the Texas Aviation Association, which has had its hands full lately keeping general aviation alive in the Austin area.

When did you get interested in geology?

I used to go fishing with my father on numerous rivers in the Ozarks of southern Missouri, and I was intrigued by the wonderful caves along the rivers. I started caving on my own when I was twelve or thirteen, took it very seriously, and joined a caving group in St. Louis. I was a geology major for two years in college, but I didn't stick with it. I wanted to tramp around in the woods and do field exploration, but there were very few field opportunities for women in geology at that time.

What was at the root of your fear of flying?

In 1963 I was into caving, and a couple of close friends I used to cave with died in a canoeing accident, and that turned my life upside down. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was the incident that precipitated my fear of flying. I came from a very small family so I didn't have a lot of relatives to pass away, and I hadn't really encountered death yet. My parents were also separating at the time, so my world became very fragile. I was phobic about a lot of things. It wasn't just flying. I didn't want to drive, didn't want to go caving, even became edgy about crossing the street when there was no traffic.

I was in the process of planning to spend that summer on the Northwest coast backpacking the length of the Cascade Crest Trail. I didn't have a lot of experience but I had a lot of will, and I was perfectly content to go off by myself if no one wanted to come along. I didn't want to fly to the Northwest, so I wound up taking the train, and getting there alive was the beginning of my reclamation of my life. I didn't have too many opportunities to fly, but when opportunities came up I found that I was reluctant to take them, though I did, with increasing fear. Years later I managed to figure out that my fear had its roots in the death of my friends in the spring of '63.

I did hike the Cascade Crest Trail that summer, and I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest that I couldn't go back to Antioch College in Ohio. I enrolled as a geology major at the University of Washington, and spent almost ten years in Seattle. I jumped ship from geology after I found out what the field situation was like, and got into anthropology, where there were lots of field opportunities. I didn't know quite what I wanted to do in anthropology, what part of the world I wanted to work in, but I had always had a talent for languages, so I got interested in linguistic anthropology and that's ultimately the direction I took.

Had you flown before the phobia set in?

I had flown twice. I had one experience on a 707 from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., and I had been in a Cessna 182 up in the wilderness of Maine. On that trip I was hiking with some friends and we we hitchhiked out from a fishing camp into one of the nearby towns, and decided to fly back in. It was a little scary, first time in a small plane, but it was beautiful and exciting, too.

There was an eight-year period when I did fly on the airlines, and I found I had greater and greater periods of anticipatory anxiety, but once I made the decision to fly and strapped into the plane, my fellow passengers had no idea of the turmoil I was in. I had two rough flights, back to back, with turbulence and visible lightning due to proximity of thunderstorms. It was a feeling of fragility in an environment I was already uncomfortable with. Those two flights scared me to the point where I just didn't want to fly.

Barb MacLeod
I went into the Peace Corps, and my job was to be a cave explorer for the Department of Archaeology of the government of Belize. It was a great opportunity but I had to fly to get there, and I turned that flight into an enormous rite of passage. I was sure that I was on God's shit list and this flight was going to prove it to me. We landed safely in Belize City and I was happy to be on the ground and launched myself into a wonderful five-year job.

My job was to go deep into the jungle and explore Mayan caves that no one had been in for 1,500 years. They were great, long caves with miles of river passage. There were artifacts and evidence of burial sites, and it was dangerous. There were lots of close calls with loose rocks and close calls with drowning — the kind of things you would expect if you put yourself out in the wilderness on the edge.

I'm getting a picture of Indiana Jones.

It was very much an Indiana Jones kind of life. I explored and mapped caves, and did salvage archaeology in them. It was spectacular.

So there was a part of me that wasn't afraid to take on new opportunities and adventures, and could balance risk and reward, and on the other side was totally petrified of getting on an airplane. I couldn't make sense of it and I buried that part of me. I was ashamed of it. Very few people knew about it. I didn't know what to do about it and didn't see any way out of it.

I got out of the Peace Corps in 1975 and moved to British Columbia. I lived on a little island in the Strait of Georgia, and went back to Guatemala to work for the Sierra Club as a river guide, then back to Alaska in the spring of '76, and enrolled at the University of Texas in the fall of that year. All of this was overland travel because I was afraid to fly.

How did you get help to tackle the phobia?

I had a job offer in 1991 to teach at the University of North Carolina for one month a year. It's a conversational course in a Mayan language called Yucatec Maya — it's spoken in Yucatan, Campeche, and Quintana Roo in Mexico. I first taught the course in June of 1992 and they were quite willing to send me a plane ticket, but I took the bus from Austin to Chapel Hill. It was an exhausting, stressful and uncomfortable trip and I vowed that no matter what I was going to make myself fly there in June of 1993. As that time approached I started having a series of dreams — and I've been active in dream work since the late '70s — and these dreams would put me in airborne situations, in commercial airliners or small planes. They were wonderful and exciting opportunities and it was clear that the dreams were pushing a message for me to get over the fear and that I could learn to love to fly. Then I'd wake up from the dreams and decided it was too scary. But I had already committed that no matter what I was going to do it.

I had squirreled away a bunch of articles about programs that were run by the airlines, and I think most of the major airlines have tried programs like this at different times. One of the more successful programs was the one American Airlines had started in the early '80s, and I had an article about that program written by someone who had participated in it. As it turned out, Reid Wilson is the psychologist that ran American's program and he had a practice in, of all places, Chapel Hill. I called him and explained my situation, and just the rapport that we established on the phone was a good start. I had all kinds of backup plans in place but did complete the flight to Raleigh-Durham — even changed planes in Dallas — and it was a great flight. It was an overcast morning and when we popped up into the sunshine it was almost a religious experience, a sense of relief and wonder. Another thing that helped overcome the fear was just opening up to friends about it, which I hadn't done before. I realized that they weren't going to ridicule me, and their support and understanding would make us better friends

During those four weeks in Chapel Hill I met with Reid three times, and he helped me understand how the fear came about. I flew back to Texas without any anticipatory fear at all, and to me that was the evidence that there had been a change. I spent the rest of the summer bouncing across the country seeing family and friends I hadn't seen in 15 years. After about a dozen commercial flights I was ready to explore this new discovery and get some education about it.

I signed up for a ground school — it's the class I teach now — not with the intention of learning to fly, but just to learn more about it. They gave us an introductory flight and I came down from that half-hour flight in a 152 knowing that this was the purest form of the drug and I just had to have it. It's a feeling that I watch my aerobatic students go through now. It's a combination of fear and excitement and fascination and trepidation all mixed together.

When the phobia had you in its grip, was your distrust directed at the pilots, at the machines, or at yourself?

I did feel vulnerable when I was up in the air, off the planet, and felt more at the mercy of screw-ups. But there was an element of wondering if I belonged in the world. I grew up with two alcoholic parents, in an unstable, dysfunctional family, and I think I did concentrate abnormally on the possibility of mechanical failure and pilot error. Every plane crash proved that I was right and vindicated my attitude, and the media play to that attitude even in non-phobic people.

Tell us about your first solo.

It didn't come very quickly. I think I had about 30 hours. I was already learning spins and loops and rolls before I soloed — in fact we did them on my first lesson — but I was terrified of landing. When I look back at my limited experience with commercial flights, the worst part was always landing, and some of that must have carried over.

I wasn't sure that my first solo was going to happen that day. My instructor was a former Air Force pilot and he said the usual thing — "Park it here, I'm going to get out, it's going to climb like crazy" — and I did it. He had signed me off to several airports so the next day I came in and took the airplane and went off and did a bunch of landings. I think that day was actually more exciting than the first solo, because it was my first unsupervised trip out of Austin.

So in 1993 you went from a fear of flying in the spring to soloing, loops and spins in the fall.

It was a tidal-wave experience. It makes you realize that all things are possible. You have to be ready for it, you have to push it along, and you have to not let anything get in the way.

Watch Barb's 52-turn spin in streaming video!

Barb calls out turns and CFI Max Bell calls out altitudes as they log 52 spins in an Cessna 152 Aerobat over Austin's Bergstrom field. (Running time: about 3 minutes.)

Download RealPlayerIf you don't already have RealPlayer installed, you can download it here.

I had my private license in July of '94 and began aerobatic training a few days after that. Then I took a mountain-flying course in British Columbia for a week, and came back and finished the aerobatic course. We used the syllabus in Bill Kershner's Basic Aerobatic Manual, and he refers to 21-turn spins in the book. One day my instructor turned to me and said "I'd like to try a 21-turn spin." Part of me said "Holy Shit!" and part of me said "I want to be there" and we decided to do it as part of my aerobatic training.

That really whetted my appetite for long spins so I started doing them and videotaping them. The longest one is 52 turns and I sent the tape to Bill Kershner, who was interested because he's never done more than 30 himself.

Who holds the record?

I think that the international record is still held by Eric Mueller who did 125. Then there's the question of upright versus inverted spins, but I think Mark Madden — who died last year — broke Wayne Handley's record of 67 inverted by doing over 80.

Is that a record you're interested in holding?

I think I could do 125 turns if I worked up to it, and started with enough altitude.

Do you have any trouble keeping count?

Apparently not. I've been able to do it every time I've tried, but it does take a lot of concentration to stay focused that long. These days I do about seven or eight spins with my students, and it's hard to just jump up to 25 or more. You have to train your brain to stay focused.

What airplane were you in when you did 52 consecutive spins, and how high did you start?

We were in a 152 Aerobat and started from 13,500 feet. I took one of my former aerobatic instructors — who was a bit reluctant but went anyway — and the deal was I would call out the turns and he would call out the altitudes. We were on our way to 14,000 feet but it was getting dark and we didn't want to take the extra 10 minutes or so it would've taken to get the last 500 feet. We were pretty slow already.

Tell us about the forced landing and the sunglasses.

Barb MacLeod
They don't call 'em blueblockers for nothing...
It was the same airplane that I now instruct in. The owner was using a mechanic at a private field called Pegasus, about 20 miles northwest of Austin. I usually ferried the airplane there and back, but this time someone else had brought the airplane in and I was bringing it back. My friend Ken dropped me off, and I did the walk-around, and discovered there were only about three or four gallons of fuel in the airplane. Ike, the mechanic, said "I normally don't sell fuel, but I might be able to find you some." He had a Navion there at the shop with some gas in it, so he got a bottle and drained some into it, and it looked fine. It was blue. So he took the valve off the Navion and filled up a jerry can from the wing tank.

I went up to his house to use the restroom, and when he came back he had already poured the gas into one of the wings of the Aerobat. I checked the sumps again and I remember distinctly taking off my blue-blocker sunglasses to check the right wing, taking them off when I checked the gascolator, and not taking them off when I checked the left wing, and, of course — as I found out later — he had poured the fuel into the left wing.

I got airborne and my plan was to climb to 4,500 feet and do some aerobatics before I came back. I got to about 4,100 feet and got a little roughness, about a 200 RPM drop, then it smoothed out again, but it got my attention so I turned further east, which was friendlier and flatter terrain. At that point I did a wingover and all hell broke loose. I got real serious roughness and then the engine just quit. I could see Georgetown airport about six miles away, and I knew I had a tailwind, so I turned toward it and hoped I could make it, and I did, with altitude to spare.

A lot of interesting things go through your head after an engine failure. The primary thing is to fly the airplane, and there's no time at which I failed to do that. I maintained best glide, I knew I had a tailwind, I knew how far I had to go, and I also knew I could screw this up and die, too. I called Georgetown and told them I was going to do a downwind landing and that's what I did. I had just enough momentum to roll off the runway onto the taxiway, and that's when I realized that my knees were knocking. A mechanic helped me flush the tank and there was just a lot of water that had gone into the left wing. Once we drained it, the plane flew just fine.

Is that your only forced landing?

No, I've had two more since that one. I had carb ice on my first instructional flight. We were below a cloud base and there was a lot of humidity that day. We found out later that the carb heat duct was not working properly, even though I got a noticeable RPM drop during runup. We got carb ice and there wasn't enough carb heat to fix it, and we were able to hold altitude to do an emergency landing at what's now our municipal airport — Bergstrom — but this was when Mueller was still open. ATC at Mueller was encouraging me to go to Mueller, but as I got close to Bergstrom I decided to use the "E word" and go there. I was met by fire trucks, police cars and a few city vehicles, but other than that it was uneventful. The mechanic came out the next day, determined what the problem was, and fixed it.

The other one was October 1st of last year. I was with a student in the pattern at Taylor, which is about 25 miles northeast of Austin, and we had been doing simulated engine failures over fields a half-hour before that. I was on downwind and had the classic combination of vibration, smelling smoke, oil temp coming up, and oil pressure dropping off. We were downwind at pattern altitude so I flew it in and landed. A piston had cracked, decompressed that cylinder, which over-compressed the rest of the engine, and blew the oil out the breather, all in about 10 seconds. My student handled it quite well, and I felt like I handled it well, too.

Did having an experience like that rekindle the phobia?

Absolutely not. The phobia is gone. Flying is my life and I can't imagine what would make me stop doing it.

How did music get into your life and when did you start writing songs about flying?

Barb MacLeod
The cover from Barb MacLeod's Air Circus.

Listen to Barb's song "Grows You Up and Grows You Down"

I grew up surrounded by music of all kinds—classical, jazz, folk, blues, and of course rock 'n' roll was a part of my adolescence. But I have been a folkie from the git-go. I learned to play guitar in 1959 when my caver boyfriend taught me a few chords. I love singing harmony; that's better, even, than doing snap rolls. Songs learned at summer camp — and the opportunities there for group harmony — played a large role in my musical development. I have written many songs about things I am passionate about; it began in high school with my first caving song. Many others followed, and some won awards at national caving conventions. I have written several "Mayan jungle" songs also. My first flying song was "Grows You Up and It Grows You Down" and was written just after my first aerobatic solo, in October, 1994. After that, they just kept comin' out regularly over a two-year period.

NOTE: Barb MacLeod's Air Circus is available at

What's the most interesting thing you discovered about the Mayans in your travels?

Just in the last ten years we've had a major shift in our understanding of the Mayans, and when we go back and read what was first thought about the Mayans we realize how much we didn't know. We're likely to see more change in our view of them as more cities are unearthed, and we learn more about the political alliances and sub-alliances, and warfare and marriages. For instance, we used to think that they were peaceful and that their culture was dedicated to understanding time and the heavens and astronomy, and those notions have fallen by the wayside. If anything, we conclude that they were a lot like us. They were fascinated with all kinds of things in their natural world, they were very competitive, and they were up against hard times. They had to deal with overpopulation, drought, inadequate resources and we're still trying to sort out how they handled it and why they disappeared.

Learning to read their hieroglyphics has been amazing to me. The golden period of decipherment is now. It started around the early '70s and I've been immersed in it from the beginning. In that time we've gone from not really understanding how their writing system worked to now being able to read 85 to 90 percent of it. My contribution to that understanding has been the grammar, and that's almost like having a time machine. We're now able to piece together and read aloud a language that hasn't been spoken aloud in 1,500 years.

What's your favorite Mayan cave?

There's a complex called the Caves Branch area which wasn't widely known to tourists until recently, but there are tours now that allow you to rappel into the caves. There's a cave called Petroglyph Cave in central Belize that I'd say is pretty pristine as an archeological site. There are wonderful crystal formations, and skulls covered with crystals, petroglyphs on the walls, and for many reasons that's a favorite cave.

I'd say my all time favorite cave anywhere is the Mammoth Cave Flint Ridge system in Kentucky. It's the biggest cave in the world, by far, and it's endless and historical. You can go crawling off into corners of that cave and find kneeprints of people that explored that corner 80 years ago and you're the first person to come in after them.

We've heard a lot of bad news about the GA situation in Austin. Can you give us some good news?

The Texas Aviation Association is a strong organization and we've managed to establish a rapport with the Department of Aviation. I was the one who blew the whistle on the minimum standards they tried to impose, and TXAA and AOPA got in behind us and wrote a very strong response, and the city responded favorably and altered their minimum standards accordingly. There are still some issues there that we don't like, but I'm crossing my fingers that maybe we've successfully dealt with this. I think they'd like for GA to leave Bergstrom and go somewhere else, but there's nowhere else for us to go. Apparently the Pflugerville project is dead. That's a town north of Austin that did an airport feasibility study, but there was so much opposition from the local landowners that they gave up on it. There are still some people talking about reopening Mueller. I know that it will come up again in the legislature.

So the good news is we've got a strong local organization, and without that we'd be dead in the water.

What's unique about the way you teach flying?

I love teaching. I taught during graduate school, did summer camp counseling, and taught the Yucatec Maya course for eight years. Flying is a very emotional activity and I think I relate to the emotions of the students. As a CFI you're given training about how to teach. I learned what I had to learn to regurgitate it on my CFI checkride, but I don't necessarily follow the book down the line. I try to use my intuitive sense about how to present information, and I'm really dedicated to my students. When I get passionate about something I think is worthwhile I want to share it with others so they can get passionate about it too.

If you or someone you know has an interesting aviation story to tell, please send an Email to Joe Godfrey.