Patty Wagstaff is a competition aerobatic pilot, U.S. National Aerobatic Champion, and 6-time consecutive “First Lady of Aerobatics”. Today, she owns and operates an aerobatic and upset recovery training (UPRT) flight school in St. Augustine, Florida.
Wagstaff grew up in Japan, the daughter of a Japan Air Lines pilot, and didn’t consider a flying career until her late twenties. When she expressed interest in pursuing a flying career, she met the then-typical response that women couldn’t become airline pilots. But that didn’t stop her. She pursued her flying career in Alaska using a public, low-interest, student loan program to pay for training.
After attending an airshow and watching an aerobatic competition, she flew in a Decathlon and explored things upside down, leading to a lifelong love of aerobatic flying. “I was really looking for something to excel at,” says Wagstaff. “It just happened to take this form.”
There were few women flying aerobatics at the time. “At first”, she says, “people thought ‘Oh, isn’t that cute?’” But despite such comments, many in the aerobatic community were welcoming and enthusiastic, if a bit confused. “Later, they told me”, says Wagstaff: “‘We didn’t know what to do…you were sort of like our little sister…then all of a sudden you’re kicking our butts!’” Gradually, the community saw her more and more as just a fellow competitor.
Recently, Wagstaff was thumbing through the top aviation magazines and noticed something interesting: the vast majority of articles and ads featured white men on the cover. Only three percent of the material featured women or people of color, substantially far less than the rate in the U.S. pilot population. To Wagstaff, it’s an interesting way in which one part of our culture is lagging another: women and minorities are learning to fly. But they are still far from the “typical” pilot in the cultural mindset at large.
Wagstaff is quick to recognize that everyone is susceptible to bias in one degree or another. Laughing, she recalls an event several years ago, when she watched friend and mentee Shasta Weiss depart on her round-the-world trip in an A-36 Bonanza. “All of a sudden, I’m a little nervous [for her],” says Wagstaff. After expressing this, another pilot wittily pointed out that a few years earlier when a male pilot, with less flight time than Weiss, departed on a similar round-the-world flight, none of them were nervous for him. “We’re all a little bit guilty” says Wagstaff.
For young women and men embarking on careers, Wagstaff advises they “Find allies and mentors…Find somebody that is on your side that will speak up for you. When you’re the only different person in the room and you’re just starting out and you’re young, it’s hard to speak up.” And, she adds, a more established mentor may have more influence in the community than you, and they can use that to help you.
For her part, Wagstaff is enthusiastically leading the way through her Florida-based aerobatic and UPRT training school, where she routinely teaches students of diverse backgrounds, united by their passion for aerobatics.