Through life and career, we undoubtedly pick up mentors, heroes and role models. Everyday life is a challenge, leaving us wondering how to act, and we have to rely on others to show the way—overtly as you might expect from a coach or inadvertently when we like a character on TV or meet someone whose persona and behavior we would like to emulate. We gain insight from our observations. Sometimes we have to ask for advice, and if we’re lucky, we get it.
When I was a kid, there weren’t many women for me to look up to as role models. I was less attracted to the traditional life of wife and mother than I was to the life of astronauts, FBI agents, racecar drivers and other people who led exciting and adventurous lives. Even though it was pretty clear that those paths weren’t generally open for women, I fantasized about them all, knowing I could do any of it. My female heroes as a kid were entertainers—my favorite, the sultry-voiced Peggy Lee. I’ve always loved clothes and designing clothes, so I designed a sequined ball gown for Ms. Lee and sent it to her with a note about how much I hoped she would have it made and wear it. She sent me a black-and-white autographed picture (I was living in Japan at the time), signed “Fondly, Peggy Lee.” It was my most prized possession for many years, and today when I sign autographs, I sometimes sign “Fondly, Patty Wagstaff.” Thanks, Peggy, for the inspiration. I guess you could say she was one of my first role models.
Luckily, by the time I reached high school, things started to change. Women starting breaking out into careers previously not open to them, and we had our first women astronauts and airline pilots. I guess, in a way, my sister became one of my important role models. She’s younger than I am, but started flying before me, and I admired her singular dedication to learning to fly and taking the path to becoming an airline pilot. Someone who knew what they wanted and had a clear path to it—who knew such people existed? I’ve always admired people who knew what their goal was and who didn’t waver from it. It took me a much longer and winding path than her to identify what I wanted to do. So, in a sense, I used her dedication to find something in aviation that would give me the same single-minded focus.
In any sport, the aspiring competitor can only safely rely on the wisdom of who and what have gone before them from the people involved and from research, statistics or facts. Occasionally, a pioneer invents the wheel, but even the most solitary sportsperson has a solid understanding of their sport and is also part of a team. In competition aerobatics and in airshows, I’ve found a lot of mentors to help me along the way, some of whom didn’t even know it at the time.
In competition aerobatics, we rely on people on the ground to tell us how we look in the air, so we spend a lot of time with coaches who “critique” us with a radio. You have to have an aerobatic box to fly lower altitudes in, a quiet area where you can get coaching and a coach who understands what to look for and how to help you. It’s hard to find good coaches. In airshows, we rely on others to sometimes tell us how things look for entertainment value, but also for safety. My system was like a lot of people’s—I’d take lessons, practice enough not to start practicing mistakes and then take more lessons. After a time, the lessons took the form of coaching.
You can learn a lot from listening, and while it’s nice when someone recognizes your talent and dedication, sometimes you also have to ask for help. The people who helped me with advice and coaching when I was competing had a selfless devotion to the sport of aerobatics. Like the very best sportsmen, they knew that the better their competition did, the better they would do and how it would enhance the overall sport. Clint McHenry really embodied these qualities. When I was starting to win contests, I remember him saying, “Geez, I want you to beat me, but not by much!”
In 1988, when I decided to do the inverted ribbon cut, I called three of my mentors to get their advice, Bob Herendeen, Bob Davis and Leo Loudenslager. I wrote down everything they said, and my notes say: “Don’t dive at the Ribbon!”; “Give yourself enough room on either side of the Ribbon”; and “If you hear a strange sound, then you’re probably too low and it’s the sound of the prop bouncing off the concrete.” Yikes! Bob Herendeen came to Tucson to help me set up the poles and ribbons. We went to the hardware store and found some swimming pool cleaning poles and added another piece of tubing to it to make the height 22 feet, and this is the same height I’ve used ever since. My first ribbon cut is tattooed in my mind forever. I can still see the ribbon hit the canopy, and at the time I thought that was one of the strangest things I had ever done, but, of course, I’ve been doing it ever since.
Sometimes a person becomes a mentor without even knowing it. It can be risky to give advice to someone who’s not asking for it, as it might seem presumptuous or could be taken the wrong way. So, early on in my aerobatic flying when someone stepped up and said, “Patty, you’re snap-rolling that airplane way too low,” I might have disagreed at the time and even felt a little offended, but later on I realized they were giving me the most profound advice I could ever get.
Patty with a few of her mentors, Duane Cole, Bob Hoover and Leo Loudenslager.
In life, we’re constantly in new territory. When I’m in a situation where I don’t know how to act, I like to think of my role models and how they might behave, people like Clint McHenry and Bob Hoover. Clint always behaved like a gentleman and in a gracious manner, even when some of our other U.S. Team competitors were less than gracious to him. I watched this in wonder. I wanted to tell people off and give them a piece of my mind, but now, of course, I realize he was absolutely right in taking the higher road. At another time, I was flying the show at Oshkosh when Bob Hoover flew his victory performance in his Shrike Commander after his horrendous battle with the FAA. Bob was everyone’s hero because he fought the FAA when they took his medical for no good reason and he fought it for all of us. After his perfect performance, he taxied in, engines shut down, to the very same spot he started up for the show. When Bob got out and waved, everyone cheered. I was watching this from the performer tent nearby, where I happened to be sitting on a bench next to our FAA National Airshow Coordinator who looked at me and cringed, pretending to cover his face, and said, “Oh, God, I hope he doesn’t see me. I know he must hate all FAA people.” But Bob, in true Hoover fashion, made a point to stop and say hello, shake his hand and say a genuine, “Ed, it’s nice to see you.” If that isn’t a class act, then nothing is. I’ve learned a lot from watching role models like Bob Hoover and Clint. I just wish there were more of them!
Another year at Oshkosh, a few of us were relaxing on the grass near the performer tent when Paul Poberezny, the Pope himself, got out of his red VW Bug, walked over and started picking up little bits of paper and other trash around us. Be mindful, he way saying, without saying a word. He must have seen we really needed schooling that year. The next day, we were sitting around snickering about someone we knew who’d recently dented an airplane when Paul P. overheard us. He said, “You should never judge another pilot until you walk in his shoes,” and quietly walked away. I won’t forget the lessons I learned from Paul who in his quiet way taught us a lot about becoming better human beings.
Sometimes the most unexpected people can be role models. I was at a show with an airshow performer who had a notorious short fuse and his anger management problem embarrassed us all. That particular day, I heard him shouting at the line guy who was trying to help him fuel his airplane. Instead of walking away, complaining or arguing with him, the line guy graciously listened, didn’t talk back and continued to fuel the airplane. I learned a lot from that line guy. I’m not saying you should be a victim, but it’s important to pick your fight. The line guy took the higher road and just went about his work.
I have a lot of heroes in aviation—Jimmy Doolittle, Amelia, Bessie Coleman, Kathy Sullivan, Hoser Satrapa, Betty Skelton, Saint-Exupéry—some of whom I’ve had the good fortune to meet and get to know. My heroes, too, are the ambassadors of aviation, airshow pilots, who have gone before me for reasons of fate or misfortune. To give your life in an unforgiving and demanding business sharing aviation deserves hero status in my book.
In aviation, we have mentors and role models all around us. People love to be of service, especially the type of people we want to listen to—those humble and gracious aviators who see the bigger picture. Sometimes all you have to do is watch and listen, but other times you have to ask for advice.
In fact, the act of asking is an important part of the process. In keeping my eyes open for ways to better understand my role in life and in aviation, my mentors have shown me again and again a better way to understand how to live my life.