Dream Makers: Everyday Pilots Reaching For The Sky

When passion and determination combine, anything is possible

­Len Anderson IV. Photo by William Anthony

Dreams of flight are special. They beckon you from your earliest memories, and they're insistent---always calling you to look up at the sky when an airplane passes overhead, or crane your neck at the nearest airport. Some people keep those dreams at bay for a variety of reasons. But others chase them with every ounce of their being; they hold onto them, make them happen and inspire others to go after their own aviation goals.

These are stories of pilots---none famous but all passionate about flying---who were touched by dreams of flight and did everything possible to make their dreams a reality. In spite of their accomplishments, each one is humble, engaging and filled with the spark of life shared by all aviators.

Len Anderson IV

If there's one dream that's pervasive among anyone even remotely interested in aviation, it's that of becoming a military fighter pilot. For Len Anderson, watching Top Gun sealed his fate.

"I watched it," says Anderson, "and though the aviation spark was already there, that gave me the added fuel. It became my dream." Thirteen years later, Anderson was accepted into the Navy's prestigious, grueling and famous Top Gun school.

Anderson began pursuing his dream in earnest as a senior in high school. He applied to all the military academies, but settled on a civilian college and enrolled in the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), guaranteeing a shot at a Navy flight-training slot. Anderson was accepted into fighter training, and went on to fly F/A-18s for the U.S. Marine Corps. "It was fun, it was amazing, it was just an incredible time for me," he says.

Later, after being selected as a training officer, Anderson began to pursue his dream of becoming a member of the Blue Angels, the Navy's precision aerial demonstration team. After three years of applying, he was selected for the world-famous team. "For three years, I got to fly around the world, essentially breaking every FAR you've ever known," he laughs.

His 14 years of active-duty flying ended happily after his stint with the Blue Angels, and Anderson became a flight engineer on Boeing 727s for FedEx. Today, Anderson is pursuing a dream of a different sort: acting and writing scripts in Hollywood. "It has been going really well, and I have a movie coming out that involves aviation," smiles Anderson. "I've been very fortunate." He advises anyone thinking about aviation to keep the dream alive: "Search out those pilots that are better than you. Fly with them. Learn from them. Never settle for anything less than pursuing perfection in the air."

Neal Schwartz

Neal Schwartz
Neal Schwartz was just three, staring up at airplanes, when the aviation bug bit him. At 16, Schwartz went to his local airport in Westchester County, N.Y., and begged for a job at the FBO. "By working there, I got to be around instructors and renters, and I learned as much as I could about aviation," he explains. Throughout high school, he flew and worked at the airport. He earned his private certificate at 17 (his grandmother was his first passenger), and went on to pursue an economics major at Duke University. While in college, he flew through the Chapel Hill Flying Club, even ferrying an airplane from Florida to Los Angeles, which provided valuable hours and experience. "Then one day, I was flipping through a Sporty's catalog and saw an ad for a $15,000 aviation scholarship," remembers Schwartz. "I wrote an essay, got some recommendations, sent my transcripts and waited."

Weeks later, he got a call from Richard Collins, the famed instrument pilot and aviation author. "He asked me if I was still interested, and I said, ’Yes!'" The next day, Hal Shevers, owner and president of Sporty's, called Schwartz to tell him he had been chosen for the scholarship out of 897 applicants.

Schwartz took the $15,000 and trained at local FBOs and flying clubs to keep expenses low. "I stretched that $15,000 to include my instrument, commercial, multi and CFI ratings," he says. Schwartz became an instructor and built up enough hours to attract the regional airlines. He spent six years with ExpressJet, then landed a coveted job with the majors, flying Continental Boeing 737s throughout North and Central America from his home in Manhattan. "It's a dream come true," he says.

Schwartz has great advice for anybody pursuing an aviation dream: "It's simple," he says. "There's always a way. Whether it's working at the FBO or flying backseat for free on other people's lessons---there's always a way to become a pilot."

Jonathan Strickland

Jonathan Strickland
He's just shy of 18, but Jonathan Strickland already has earned his private certificate and instrument rating, and has commercial and CFI checkrides scheduled on his upcoming 18th birthday. He has been flying since he was eight.

"I fly myself to high school," he says, matter-of-factly. "I land in Van Nuys and just take a bus, ride my bike or skateboard to school." For Strickland, this is all part of a clearly defined goal of becoming a pilot for a major airline. "It's a dream I've had since I can remember," he says.

Strickland's journey began while traveling on airliners with his grandmother---something he enjoyed very much. When Strickland was eight, a pilot friend who flew for Delta took him for a ride in a Cessna 182, and Strickland was hooked. He continued to fly the 182 with his friend whenever he could. After hearing about Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum, near his home in Compton, Calif., Strickland applied to the program, which is designed to help inner-city youths get involved in aviation.

Strickland was accepted and began flight instruction: He was a "natural stick," and at 14, he flew a helicopter to Canada with his flight instructor, and soloed both the helicopter and a fixed-wing airplane on the same day---a first for his age.

Strickland has amassed more than 380 hours in the air and is piloting a high-performance Beechcraft A36 Bonanza and preparing for his commercial checkride. He has been accepted to Embry-Riddle University to pursue a degree in aviation and his dream of becoming a captain on a major airline.

Strickland has a simple piece of advice for anyone pursuing aviation: "I can tell you for sure that good things happen to people who hang around local airports." He finishes our conversation with one last thought: "You have to be determined. If you're determined, nothing can stop you."

Ben Freelove

Ben Freelove
Fourteen minutes of the most intense flying you can imagine, in front of thousands of fans: It's a typical day for Ben Freelove. "I'm very lucky in that I get to work as a full-time aerobatic pilot," he says modestly. There are few sentences in aviation that would make pilots greener with envy. Freelove performs in air shows around the world as part of The Collaborators, a formation aerobatic team put together by air show master Sean Tucker. Freelove also teaches aerobatics at the renowned Tutima Academy of Aviation Safety in King City, Calif., and flies in international aerobatic competitions. Barely into his 30s, Freelove has what he calls, "the greatest job in the world!"

Freelove got his first taste of aviation as a kid in Dayton, Ohio. "I'd go to all the air shows," he remembers, "and I dreamed of becoming a pilot." Like most kids enamored with aviation, he wanted to become a fighter pilot, but his vision didn't meet military standards at the time. Instead, at 19, Freelove started flight training at his local airport, though he was totally broke. "It took me over a year to beg, borrow and steal enough to earn my private certificate," he laughs.

By his own admission, Freelove was "a nervous pilot," though watching aerobatics intrigued him. He read everything he could get his hands on about aerobatics, and worked up the courage to finally try it after earning his private ticket. Freelove recalls, "A guy at my local airport had an Extra 300, so I took a flight with him, and though it kind of freaked me out, it was the coolest thing I had ever done." The bug took hold immediately.

Freelove heard that California was the place to be for burgeoning aerobatic pilots, so he left Dayton, got some student loans and earned the rest of his ratings in the Bay Area. He got a job instructing at a flying club near Oakland, where he flew more than 1,000 hours yearly for three years. At the same time, he was honing his aerobatic skills at Tutima, one of the top precision flight-training schools in the country. "When Sean Tucker was looking for a new instructor," explains Freelove, "I was fortunate to get the call." Today, performing in air shows, competing and instructing, Freelove is living every kid's dream.

"Just start by going to your local airport," he suggests. "Some two dozen people that I met at airports have helped me along the way." He advises anyone considering flying to do it now: "There are lots of pilots who want to share aviation with you." Freelove realizes how fortunate he is to be doing what he does. "My career path has been pretty surreal," he smiles. "When I look back, it amazes me."

Rachel Tanzer

Rachel Tanzer
There's a thread of self-reliance, perseverance and creative thinking that runs through all the pilots who've made their dreams come true---Rachel Tanzer is no exception. On the way to her current gig as a training manager and demo pilot for Cirrus Design---one of the most innovative general aviation manufacturers today---Tanzer worked in the music business. Combining her two passions, she often flies with the movers and shakers of the entertainment world.

Tanzer is soft-spoken but focused and direct. She's someone who has made her dreams come true on her own terms. Her flying dreams began when her mother and sister pitched in to buy her a flying lesson for her 21st birthday. "Flying was all I ever wanted to do, and I was hooked early on," she says.

Her enthusiasm was so great that after earning her private certificate, she earned her instrument, commercial and CFI ratings within six months. The entire time, Tanzer was working in the music business both as an agent and as an artist-relations manager in Los Angeles. "It wasn't quite what I thought it was going to be," she remembers. "I needed a hobby, and flying became it."

After some soul-searching, Tanzer left the music business altogether and decided to go full-time into aviation. She was hired by Cirrus in 2004. Today, she teaches CFIs how to train in the Cirrus family of airplanes. She travels all over the country as a demo pilot, and with her connections in the entertainment world, she gets to fly some pretty famous people. "I don't know if I should give up their names," considers Tanzer, "but I fly with some amazing people and I see places that almost nobody gets to see." Her next goal is getting her type rating in the brand-new Cirrus Vision jet.

Tanzer believes that anybody who wants to fly can find a way. "Just start!" she suggests. "You find ways to make it work. We all do. You can find a way to finance it somehow---if it's washing airplanes or whatever. I really thought you needed a lot of money to fly, but I'm glad I figured out that's not true. Just don't get discouraged."

Katie Pribyl

Katie Pribyl
Katie Pribyl speaks with so much energy and joy that it's difficult not to immediately become engaged in the conversation. Her words flow in smooth bites---each one growing in intensity as she describes how she discovered her dreams of flight.

For Pribyl, energy and passion are part of her flying job. She's the director of communications for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), and her position entails the best of education and flying. "I work with the media quite a bit," says Pribyl. "I do public relations work, I work with lobbyists on behalf of aviation, and I bring GA to schools and air shows." Her job also provides her with a Cirrus SR22 that she flies expressly for the purpose of promoting general aviation. For Pribyl, the dream began in rural Montana.

"I grew up on a cattle ranch," says Pribyl, "and I was going to be a veterinarian." Active in the 4-H agricultural program at her high school (where there were 15 kids in her graduating class), she got to travel to Tokyo for a 4-H event. What she remembers most is the ride back to Great Falls in a turboprop: "It was my first time in a small airplane like that---it was probably an early Dash 8. We were getting rocked in turbulence, and I loved every minute of it. It was just so much fun!"

When Pribyl landed and walked down the airstair to meet her parents, she announced her epiphany. "I just said, ’I want to fly airplanes for a career!' and my dad was thrilled, but my mom thought it was just a phase," she laughs. Unsure about how to proceed, Pribyl got advice from some airline pilot friends, and decided to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. "To pay for it, I was going to have to sell one of my steers," she says. "Where I grew up, on the family ranch, our pay was this cattle herd that we grew and nurtured."

As a high school senior, Pribyl earned her private pilot certificate, and then went on to Embry-Riddle. "That was simply the best education ever," she says. "Great flying, great instructors and a small, focused school." The school's internship opportunities led Pribyl to win a spot in the first regional jet training program for Atlantic Coast Airlines; she flew as a first officer based in Chicago for five years.

After getting furloughed in 2005, Pribyl was at Oshkosh with the FAA as an aviation safety research specialist when one of her former Embry-Riddle classmates told her about an exciting opening in Washington, D.C., with GAMA. She got the gig and has never looked back. "I get to go to schools and take kids to small airports for a day of learning about GA," says Pribyl. She also is one of the experts in Plane & Pilot's "Ask P&P" column.

Pribyl has enthusiastic advice for prospective aviators: "Be flexible and open to the different opportunities in aviation!" She says that, in retrospect, getting furloughed actually opened more doors than it closed. "I never dreamed I'd be working as a voice for general aviation," she says. "There are amazing and fantastic opportunities in aviation in the least expected places."


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