Melanie Endsley never set out to become a jet pilot. “The plan was just for me to take some safety pilot lessons since I would be flying with a pilot friend in his jet,” explains Endsley. But after just a few hours, she was taking formal flying lessons. “It was not my intention to train for my license, but I really enjoyed flying and I felt like I was pretty good at it.”
She finished her private pilot certificate training in just three months with about 88 hours of flying time, including a few hours flying the Avidyne glass panel. After taking only a few weeks off, Endsley dove right into instrument training. To build cross-country time in more complex aircraft, she flew nearly 30 hours in a turbocharged Cessna 182. One of Endsley’s instructors rewarded her with a flight in a Cessna Citation Mustang jet, and Endsley was enamored of it. She earned her instrument rating just five months after her private certificate and added some 70 more hours of time in the Cessna 172.
The few hours in the Mustang inspired her to start training in the larger Cessna CJ3 jet, with a cruising speed of some 420 knots and a 1,900 nm range. With just 30 hours in the airplane, Endsley attended crew training in Arizona in the CJ3 and earned her multi-engine rating in that airplane. Progressing briskly, Endsley was accepted into SimuFlite’s Initial Training for the single-pilot type rating, which she earned some 40 hours later.
“Flying a jet is just an amazing experience,” she says. “There really is nothing like it. There’s a lot going on, but it is intensely rewarding.”
What makes Endsley’s story unique is she earned the single-pilot jet rating with only about 300 hours of flight time—more than half of it in single-engine piston airplanes. It’s an illustration of what hard work and determination can accomplish. “I was lucky,” says Endsley. “I trained early in glass cockpits and I was able to count my jet time as multi-engine time. That and really good instructors got me where I am.”
Though it may seem out of the ordinary to earn a single-pilot jet rating after only 300 hours of flying time, Endsley’s experience shows that passion and dedication can be more important than hours flown. “I was determined to fly jets, and it didn’t really seem out of reach at all,” she says.
Endsley started her training in a traditional, local flight school just like most of us. But it was her personal motivation and desire to do something special that make her story extraordinary. Here’s a look at more traditional routes to the cockpit. Just like Endsley’s, these stories illustrate how passion and dedication took each pilot on a journey of personal discovery and achievement.
University Flight Training Program
Ashley Ogden grew up in the shadows of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. She knew from an early age that she wanted to be an astronaut. Her passion was helped along by her dad who sensed that his daughter was serious about aviation. Ogden was able to attend space camp in Huntsville, Ala., and her teen years were filled with trips to air museums, air shows and one particular performance by air show great Patty Wagstaff. “She was just amazing,” says Ogden.
A ride with her cousin in a Piper Seminole cemented her desire to learn to fly. Ogden set her sights on Embry-Riddle Aviation University—an option that was expensive for her family. She excelled at sports and thought that sports might help in her educational quest. Like something out of a novel, Ogden was scouted by an Embry-Riddle soccer coach in high school. She won a soccer scholarship to the university.
Ogden fell in love with aerobatics at Embry-Riddle, flying Super Decathlons and a Pitts S2B on her own dime. She did well enough that she took first place in the beginner category at her first competition. Ogden worked as a “ramp rat” with a regional airline, working baggage handling and every other ground position for the airline. After graduating from Embry-Riddle, Ogden went looking for adventure and found it instructing at two large FBOs.
Ogden was hired by Air Wisconsin, and later by Comair, flying regional jets. “I would go out and load bags when the guys got busy,” says Ogden, “because I knew what it was like.”
Furloughed by Comair recently, Ogden chose to go back to her first love: instructing. She’s now a full-time instructor at famed Sunrise Aviation in Southern California, where teaching aerobatics is next on her list. “Maybe this is where I’m supposed to be,” she finishes, “helping people through my own passion for aerobatics and flying.”
Cessna Pilot Centers
“I was 15 years old in Iowa City,” says Julie Filucci, “and I was learning to fly.” She had been encouraged by a family friend who was also a pilot. Her parents agreed, so Filucci started her flight training in a Cessna 150 at Green Castle Airport, with its 2,300x30-foot runway, and an “old-style” FBO run by Don Nelson and his wife. “Don was nurturing and taught me really good stick-and-rudder basics,” says Filucci. The FBO had been a Cessna Pilot Center (CPC) during its initial years, but had slipped out of the program.
Filucci studied from the “red” Cessna Pilot Center (CPC) manual, and though she failed her knowledge test the first time, she earned her private certificate while in high school, then began instrument training after graduating. Filucci took a year off from flying and transferred to the University of Boulder after a year at the University of Iowa, where she finished with her commercial and CFI ratings by the time she graduated from college and worked the desk at an FBO, where she later worked as a flight instructor for three years. “I knew aviation would be a part of my life,” she says.
After working for three years at Jeppesen and eight years at AOPA, Filucci was brought in by Cessna to take a look at the state of their Cessna Pilot Center schools, and to help create a “next-gen” training system. Filucci did just that, and helped to launch an online learning management system, a FITS-based structured syllabus and a home-study course developed by King Schools. Today, Cessna Pilot Centers offer scenario-based training with a military-inspired training curriculum, and Filucci played a prominent part in that. She works and flies for Cessna as manager of Cessna Pilot Centers.
The idea of a mentor—someone who serves as a trusted counselor and helps you along a path—isn’t unique to aviation. But a mentor is critical in aviation because learning to fly isn’t an easy task.
Though the skills required aren’t exactly superhuman, the proper combination of skill and knowledge is essential. Mentors help when the going gets rough (like learning landings when every student thinks he or she is the only one “not getting it”). For film editor Kim Furst, a mentor was the missing piece of the flight-training puzzle.
Furst was editing the now-famous aviation film One Six Right when she began getting interested in aviation. She was fortunate to meet Oracle air show pilot Sean Tucker, who invited Furst to his King City, Calif., Tutima Training Academy. “He gave me a full aerobatic introduction to flying,” laughs Furst. “He could see I loved it.” Tucker served as an initial mentor, even loaning his own J-3 Cub to the task of getting Furst into flight training. She spent the next 13 hours training in that Cub with an instructor.
After an eight-month hiatus from flying due to her busy work schedule, Furst resolved to finish her certificate and went to a local FBO to get back into flight training—this time in a Cessna 172. She met National Flight Instructor of the Year Jeffrey Robert “Mossy” Moss through her work in films. The meeting would prove pivotal to her flying.
“Mossy gave me structure and introduced me to two great training manuals—Rod Machado’s book and Ralph Butcher’s Skyroamers training manual,” says Furst. “He gave me a road map for training.” Moss checks in with Furst once a week to check on her progress. He does seemingly small things that make a big impact, like giving Furst a Cessna 172 cockpit poster to help her with memory checklist items. As a mentor, Moss is a resource to call when questions arise, and is a patient source of encouragement. “I was inspired to fly by Sean,” Furst tells me, “and Mossy made it seem possible.”
Dan Ventre was in junior high school when a friend of his father’s took him up in a small Piper, and he fell in love with flying. Without any financial support, Ventre made it a point to work odd jobs so he could pursue flying lessons. He found an instructor who had been a WWII P-51 pilot. “He was tough but he taught me excellent stick-and-rudder basics.”
After a flight in small Piper aircraft as a high school student, Dan Ventre fell in love with aviation. A passionate flying career offered him the opportunity to fly the A-6 Intruder, Instruct in the T-2C and later fly the A-4 Skyhawk in the Marine Reserve. Today, he flies as a Boeing 777 captain for FedEx.
It was the late 1960s, and America was embroiled in the Vietnam War. Ventre was finishing Daniel Webster Junior College in New Hampshire and had earned his private pilot certificate. While looking at the different branches of the military because he was interested in flying jets, Ventre got drafted. The U.S. Marine Corps had an OCS (Officer Candidate School) program whereby a student could go into the flying program after just two years of college. Ventre dove right in. “They told me that if I survived Vietnam they would send me back to college to finish my four-year degree.”
Ventre never got a chance at combat flying in Vietnam since America pulled out of the war while he was in jet flight school. After a stateside tour flying Marine Corps A-6s and instructing in T-2s, he left active duty and transitioned to the Marine Corps Reserves, where he flew another 20 years in the A-4 Skyhawk and became a squadron commander. Ventre retired from the military in 1997 as a colonel, and had already worked as a Falcon 10 Captain for a Fortune 500 Company, subsequently getting hired by FedEx in 1983. Ventre got to live in both flying worlds; "The Marine Reserve paralleled my FedEx career."
Today, Ventre is a captain and check airman for FedEx aboard the much-vaunted Boeing 777. Ventre calls the triple-seven “the absolute pinnacle of flying any transport aircraft!” Ventre’s advice to those wanting to fly? “The coming opportunities will be virtually unlimited. If you have the passion—and aviation is passion—the opportunities will be there.”
Taking The First Step
Flying is about passion, and the stories we present here are about people who followed their passion and learned to fly. These stories aren’t remarkable, and some of the folks we’ve spotlighted haven’t even finished their training yet. But they illustrate the many paths available to those wanting to fly and the rich experiences that await them.
Each case began with a first step: making the decision to fly. And in each story you find more of the dedication that’s a key ingredient to success. I have yet to find a pilot who’s not grateful for that little plastic certificate in her or his wallet that says, “I’m a pilot.” The second part that’s not printed, of course, is, “And adventure awaits.”
After all, there’s just something special about a runway. The converging lines of that mile-long strip of asphalt seem to stretch into infinity; they point nowhere and everywhere. Whether you’re in a Citation jet or a fabric Piper Cub, at takeoff, the aviation world is all yours. Even after hundreds of takeoffs, it’s the most exhilarating moment of any flight. But it all begins with that first step.
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