Flying High: A Mother Shares Her Daughter’s Dream
by Carolyn Workman

Ella Workman is enrolled at the Vermont Flight Academy in Burlington. Twice a month Ella flies over Mallets Bay, Colchester and Grand Isle as part of her flight instruction with veteran pilot and instructor, Kathy Daily. Photo: Jan Doerler

Ella Workman, a 14-year-old from Williston, Vermont, is still too young for a driver’s permit for the family car, but she has already clocked five hours of flight time in a little prop plane stationed at the Vermont Flight Academy in Burlington.

Hard to believe but true: a teenager can fly an airplane solo at the age of 16, conceivably on the same day she or he takes the exam for a driver’s license. After another 8-12 hours of inflight training—and as soon as she turns 16—Ella will be ready to take a solo flight test, the first of many hurdles along the way toward a commercial pilot’s license, her ultimate goal.

Ella Workman is my daughter, and her fascination with flight caught me by surprise. One day, I dropped her off at summer camp, and when I picked her up, she was a changed person.

“I flew a plane today,” she said breathlessly, still high from the experience. “There’s nothing like it, and no words to describe what it feels like to be up in the clouds,” she said.

Ella was just ten-years-old at the time, a mere fifth grader, and a camper at Rosie’s Girls, a three-week day camp, run out of two campuses, one in Essex Junction and the other in Barre.

Love At First Flight

Rosie’s Girls is not your usual summer camp. The brainchild of Vermont Works for Women, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women “explore, pursue and excel in work that leads to economic independence,” the day camp called Rosie’s Girls introduces young girls in fifth, sixth and seventh grade to the trades and to recreational pursuits not commonly found in summer camp programs—especially camps marketed to young girls. Instead of arts and crafts and swimming, think bike repair, car mechanics, welding, electrical engineering, carpentry, and firefighting.

Ella and I had both been counting the days when she would be old enough to attend Rosie’s Girls, so she could swing a hammer, try her hand at welding, and make her own desk lamp.
Flying was one of many vocations the campers were exposed to, but the one that quickly suggested itself as no passing fancy to Ella. “When can I fly again?” became a persistent, nagging question.

Turns out, she didn’t have to wait at all.

At the nearby Vermont Flight Academy in Burlington, students can begin flight lessons as young as nine-years-old, just so long as their nine-year-old feet reach the pedals—where much of the steering takes place.

Flight Nest

The Vermont Flight Academy is a non-profit FAA-approved school that offers nine flying certificates, ranging from private pilot, multi-engine seaplane pilot to airline transport and commercial pilot. The Academy is also part of a growing aeronautics industry that contributes over $2 billion overall to Vermont’s economy, according to the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

As far as a possible career track, the field of piloting is solid, growing, and filled with possibility and plenty of excitement. Someone needs to jet the celebrities, business executives and well-heeled families from here to there, or fly the bush and mountain planes that put out fires, or take stunning photos of sunsets captured through aerial photography, or patrol and safeguard American territories, or rush the injured to a specialty hospital.

For far too long, and for no good reason, it has been a field dominated by men. In 2011, women made up only 5 percent of the 53,000 members of the Air Line Pilots Association, a trade group that represent pilots at major carriers.

The early days of flight saw so few female pilots that a group banded together and formed a collegial association to support one another and promote the advancement of women in aviation. They called themselves The 99s in reference to the total number of licensed female pilots at the time; Amelia Earhart was named the first president in 1929. Today the organization still enjoys an active membership, awards scholarship money toward training and serves as a valuable resource for female recreational and professional pilots.

“Women’s perceptions have really evolved over time,” said Kathy Daily, one of two female flight instructors out of five faculty at the Vermont Flight Academy, and a pilot since the 1980s. “Teaching women to fly is no different than teaching men. It is the best student who makes the best pilot. If you have the skills and the accreditation, the doors in this field are wide open to you.”

Pennies for Heaven

That may be good news for generations coming up, but nowadays to land a job as a commercial pilot, major airline carriers require a four-year degree—on top of adequate flight training. Preference is given to those who have a four-year college degree in aviation.

Taken together, this double-track is a costly proposition, estimated to run upwards of about $150,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree and all the flight certifications. Just a two-hour flight and ground lesson costs about $175. Why so much?

“Purchasing and maintaining a plane is like purchasing and maintaining a car—only a car is a whole lot cheaper,” answered Sandra Ferno, the office manager at the Academy. Ferno remembers what she called the “$50 hamburger.”

“You’d say, ‘Hey let’s go to Saranac Lake for lunch,’ and with fuel, overhead and maintenance costs, that $5 burger really cost $50. With today’s fuel costs and hanger fees, that burger is more like $150. Still we fly because there’s nothing like it.”

The cost of even a modest plane, combined with the low student-to-teacher ratio, hanger fees, rising fuel and insurance costs, maintenance and overhead expenses, all contribute to the cost of flying.

To keep costs at bay was the motivating factor that drove Doug Smith, chief flight instructor and president of the Vermont Flight Academy to reorganize the flight school as a non-profit five years ago. Since it went non-profit, the Academy has become eligible for federal and state grants and can now solicit donations and sponsorships to help underwrite its programming.

Educational Partners

Another smart move was to form a partnership with the Vermont Technical College last year. Through Vermont Tech, students can obtain a new Bachelor of Science degree in Aviation Professional Pilot Technology with multiple Federal Aviation Administration pilot certificates and ratings, which prepares graduates for a wide range of careers in aviation.

Better yet, if a Vermont high school student shows an interest in flying, she or he can get a head start on the Vermont Technical four-year college degree while still in high school without paying out of pocket for the classes. Vermont Tech’s accelerated learning program “VAST,” (short for Vermont Academy of Science and Technology) offers first-year college courses at Vermont Tech’s Williston and Randolph campuses. Students simultaneously earn their high school diploma while earning college credit that can be applied toward a degree. Then, following a year at VAST, students can enroll in the college as sophomores.

This means, for motivated kids interested in flying like Ella, high school juniors and seniors can be crunching numbers in a college-accredited math class and working simultaneously with a flight instructor, accumulating the 190 hours of required flight time for pilots. Payment is covered by the public school, or rather the state, or rather our taxes. The student pays nothing so long as they are high school students. VAST and VAST funding ends at high school graduation, when college and all its related costs kick in. Still it gives students a massive head start toward a more affordable college degree.

Ella is also getting a head start on the 190 hours of required flight time she needs to become a pilot. She’s paying out of pocket until she’s old enough to enroll in VAST. Pet-sitting, bottle drives, and periodic odd jobs in the neighborhood help raise money for her training at the academy.

Currently the Vermont Flight Academy has 23 students enrolled, five of them female, three through the recently launched Vermont Technical College dual enrollment program. That number is bound to grow as more and more young women learn about the growing professional field of aeronautics, and more and more girls attend a Vermont Works For Women Rosie’s Girls camp. Like Ella, they’ll be given the chance to sit in the cockpit with an unobstructed front-row seat to the clouds. And for many, that chance experience just might change everything.


Ella, on Flying High

Flying isn’t something I thought I’d enjoy. I don’t like the freaky, fast moving, sickening sensation that a ride at the county fair delivers. I am not a fan of riding chair lifts up to mountaintops either. And I actively avoid participating in those confidence-building ropes course exercises. Heights and thrill-seeking in general, I avoid.

Then why do I love flying so much? For several reasons.

Reason one: when I am in an airplane, I’m in control. I decide when to turn, and I know what to expect with takeoffs and landings. So I came to realize that heights, on their own, don’t scare me. It’s being high up and helpless that scares me.

I don’t feel helpless in a plane. My instructor Kathy is right next to me, patiently showing me how the plane’s controls all work.

Reason two: when I’m flying, I’m soaring over whole big colorful, beautiful landscapes below. The view is so peaceful and beautiful, it draws any worry away. As I glide higher and higher up, an image once recognizable as a family farm becomes a tiny red speck. The cars that whizzed by me down below turn into an army of ants.

The higher I go, the more ‘energy’ I have stored up, with more options for maneuvers. And I don’t have to wait my turn, or ask for permission to act.

Put simply, when I’m flying, I feel free.

On a clear day, visibility can be as good as ten miles out, and I can see Vermont laid out before me in a colorful patchwork of hills and valleys that go on forever. Looking down at it all, for just a moment it feels as if the whole world is at my fingertips. 

I always thought Vermont was pretty. But seen from above in the sky, it’s gorgeous. You’ll just have to take my word for it. Or take flying lessons and find out for yourself. 



Writer Carolyn Workman lives in Williston, a very proud mom.