North Texas resident, Drew Irwin, always dreamed about flying a plane one day. She talked to us about her challenges to becoming a pilot and, eventually, becoming the first female flight simulator instructor for Dallas-based Flexjet.
From the Panhandle of Texas to the Clear Blue Sky
Drew Irwin never feared the sky or being in open spaces. She discovered her passion to fly at an early age in the panhandle of Texas.
“I grew up on a small farm in the panhandle of West Texas. I loved the freedom to play under the big Texas sky, and I think being from such a flat open space made me look at the sky and long to be up in it. By the time I was 14 I was fascinated with airplanes, how they defy gravity and make going to the wildest places possible. I knew I wanted to explore the world and learn everything I could about flying. But I also knew being the youngest of six kids and having limited means, there were no extra funds for my education. I wanted to fly more than anything, so I started researching and asking as many people as possible how to become a pilot.
“I earned money for flight lessons by asking for jobs with local roofers, carpet cleaners, and landscapers; really anyone I could convince that I was a hard-working kid and would finish what I started. I saved for two years, and when I was 16 I finally had earned enough to start flying lessons in a Cessna 152 at a small local flight school at Tradewinds Airport near Amarillo. That first lesson changed my life forever. The instructor had me take the controls just as we took off. As we floated into the air my heart lifted with the little Cessna. As we climbed to 1000 feet in the air I looked down and saw the houses getting smaller and smaller below me. I felt the worries and struggles I had get smaller and smaller too. I knew that this was where I belonged and what I was meant to do.”
Beating the Odds as a Female Aviator
Being a female aviator came with challenges that Drew was determined to overcome.
“I always thought it was strange how some people outside of aviation made comments that it was odd for a girl to try to be a pilot. Or that I should do something more appropriate for a girl. It didn’t bother me, though, and I didn’t listen to their negativity. I believe that mindset came from my father. He had taught me from an early age that I could do anything if I was willing to learn and work for it. I would follow him around the farm asking questions non-stop as he worked with all kinds of tools. From tractors and welding equipment to the cowboy tack for riding and working cattle. He was always patient and kind when explaining anything I asked. He never said I couldn’t do something but sometimes he’d have me wait so he could think of a safe way for me to learn about it. He always let me try things even if I wasn’t quite strong enough yet. He told me I could be anything if I kept working at it. There was no such thing as girls work or boys work according to him, so I didn’t get the idea there were things I couldn’t grow up to do.”
Discovering the Importance of Mentorship
“I found out from mentors at my first flight school that becoming a flight instructor is a common way to earn flight time to fly for an airline. One mentor, Christina Beltz, had a bright yellow 1946 Piper J3 Cub. She rented it to me so I could get the hours I needed to earn my commercial pilot license. I studied hard to pass all the required exams, and I had enough flight hours for my commercial pilot license and my flight instructor certificate the year I turned 18. I was hired at Stratos aviation flight school in Lubbock, Texas, instructing primary flight students.
“I found I loved teaching others to fly. As the most junior flight instructor I was often given so-called ‘difficult students,’ people who took longer than usual to catch on to flying skills or learning the academic parts of flying. I loved to teach and often they just needed a little extra time or I had to come up with a way of explaining it to fit their learning style.
“One of the best experiences I had was instructing a 70-year-old man who was retired. He tried to take flight lessons in the past but never made it to completing his first solo flight which is a milestone for student pilots. We worked together for a few flights and I told him he was ready. He had a beautiful solo flight on a summer morning that went perfectly. After that day he didn’t sign up for more flying lessons and I never saw him again. But a few weeks later his wife sent me a letter thanking me for helping him solo. She told me that his health was declining and he wouldn’t fly again, but he had a dream his whole life to solo a plane yet he was always working too much to take flight lessons. After he retired he had enough time to finally do it and decided to go for it. I loved his attitude and was honored to help him achieve his lifelong dream.
“A few years later I earned enough flying time to get hired at a regional airline. Comair Airlines flew regional jet aircraft and it was there that I flew with my first all-female flight crew. We had a great time working together and wonderful passengers who loved flying with us.”
“When the recession hit in 2007, Comair went into bankruptcy. I sought advice from a former chief pilot I worked for and he was flying for a company called Flexjet. He suggested I apply. Flexjet was based out of Dallas at the time and flying for them gave me the opportunity to return to my home state of Texas and live in Dallas. I have flown for Flexjet for 15 years now. I’m a senior Challenger 350 captain flying VIP passengers in luxury jets worldwide. I also hold the position of a company Check Pilot, and I instruct our pilots in their flight simulator training. I was the first female pilot to join the Flexjet training department in Dallas as a simulator instructor, and I’m honored to work with some of the most knowledgeable and respected pilots in the industry.
“In my spare time I volunteer as a self defense instructor with ACWA in Richardson, Texas. Being safe is important when exploring the world! I also founded a company, Aviatrix Mind, to help entrepreneurs with a high performance mindset and goal achievement. In 25 years of flying I’ve learned many skills for overcoming mental and physical challenges. I needed those skills to be my best self and see things through when life got hard. Pilots spend many years working long hours away from friends and family to earn the experience to fly at the best companies. It can feel like a long lonely journey sometimes. You don’t need to be the smartest or the strongest person to be a pilot. You need determination and a mindset to keep going no matter what life throws at you.”
Cover Photo courtesy of Drew Irwin
Bob Valleau is a freelance writer living in McKinney, Texas.