Kate Matteson’s six-week-old son, Merek, had just woken up from his nap and was cooing contentedly, and my 19-month-old son, Shawn, had just gone down for a nap, giving us a serendipitous opportunity to take some time out of our hectic day to chat over the phone about how we juggle life as a wife, mom, pilot, and professional.
Fewer than 8 percent of active FAA-certificated pilots are women, so it can be difficult to find other moms to connect with in aviation, leading to a feeling of isolation. To find out how moms continue flying recreationally and professionally while raising a family, I reached out to AOPA members and women in Female Aviators Sticking Together (FAST). We swapped stories and advice about the importance of our spouses and support systems, enjoying some “me time,” inspiring our children, and continuing careers that we love.
Matteson balances her marriage with her husband, Myles, a criminal prosecutor; raising their boys, Sealand and Merek; leading an offer development team for global asset manager Vanguard Group; and training to be a better pilot. Instead of sacrificing flying, as her father had done for work and family obligations, she plans to use general aviation to “create unique shared experiences” with her husband and sons.
“It is not easy,” said Matteson, who earned an instrument rating in Pennsylvania on November 6, 2020, at 31 weeks pregnant with Merek. “I’d like to say that I had a magic recipe for making it all work, but it’s really a challenge. Ultimately, I know that to be personally satisfied, I need to have something for myself that challenges me and allows me to grow. Flying scratches that itch for me, and it’s something exciting to share with family and friends.” She and her husband take turns pursuing their passions on the weekends, her to fly and him to train as a modern pentathlon athlete, while the other watches the children.
My husband, Jason, who is also a pilot, and I developed a schedule to ensure we make time to fly our Cessna 170B, not just to stay proficient but also to relax. Throughout the week, we alternate flying, me on Mondays and Fridays, and Jason on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, while the other takes care of our son (pointing out Mommy or Daddy flying overhead), cooks, and cleans. If we fly on the weekends, we go together as a family, and our son loves it.
“Having a supportive partner makes a huge difference,” said Amy Hills, a freelance graphic designer who got her start in aviation in 2016 after her husband, Craig, had given her an introductory flight for her birthday. Hills learned to fly, then bought a 1979 Piper Dakota in 2018 that her husband, a principal software engineer, later learned to fly in. “We have to share the duties. When he’s training, I’m hanging out with the girls. If I’m training, he’s hanging out with the girls.” Their daughters, 10-year-old Abigail and 6-year-old Margaret, spend plenty of time at the airport too. They love “airport pancakes,” flying, and playing and studying in the couple’s hangar that has two couches, a Keurig for hot chocolate, a mini-fridge, and snacks and activities. “It has become a family affair far more than I ever thought it would.”
Because her family lived out of state, single mom Victoria Holt formed a support network of grandmas, grandpas, and uncles at the Aero Country Airport in McKinney, Texas. When she entered aviation, she worked at the airport nearly every weekend in exchange for training time. Her children “played in the dirt and made ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘Transformers’ out of old airplane parts that were laying around. At the end of the day, they always fell asleep in the car on the way home. By the time we got home from the airport in the evenings, I didn’t have the heart to wake them up, so I carried them in the house, removed their little shoes, laid their heads on a pillow, and covered them up, dirt and all.” During the week, Holt took college classes and cuddled up at night with her children to read “stories” about the federal aviation regulations, meteorology, and aerodynamics instead of nursery rhymes.
Once she began flying corporately in 1993, Holt hired a nanny. The time away from her children was difficult for the whole family. When other moms were at their children’s championship games or ballet recitals, “my kids didn’t have parental representation; it hurt them and it hurt me,” she said. Holt “muscled through” being away because she needed to provide for her children. She arranged for her children’s important events to be videotaped and watched it with them afterward. Homework problems and squabbles were often handled via cellphone. Holt said she has a great relationship with her adult children, and she loves spending time with her grandchildren.
Aviation has given Laura Stants some of her greatest joys and helped her through some of her darkest seasons.
She met her future husband, Steve, at the central Indiana flight school he operated when he hired her as an instructor. The two have been married for 25 years and own and operate four Indiana flight school locations together. Stants was four months pregnant with their first child when she landed a corporate pilot job with Pizza Hut, and she continued flying and instructing in warbirds while raising a family with Steve.
Dawn Cook—“There’s no instructions for being mom, you figure it out and make it work for you.”“I see so many moms who do lose themselves and just become a vessel of taking care of other people,” said Stants. “It is easy to do because you love your husband and children and you want to take care of them, but you have to take care of you, too.”
Flying is one way Stants takes care of herself. She and Steve lost their first two children, Devon and Sidney, in 1999 because of spinal muscular atrophy, a recessive disorder that caused the boys to lose muscle tone and die, followed by a miscarriage. Stants launched the nonprofit SMA Support in 2000 to help other families. She resumed flying after a year for what she calls “air therapy,” which helped her to “remember what my life was about above and beyond the loss. It brought joy back into my life.” The couple had a daughter, Kaylee, and Stants fondly recalls dashing from a North American T–6 flight in her flight suit with messy open-cockpit hair to pick up a pink princess cake and get home for her daughter’s eighth birthday party. Kaylee is healthy and now 20.
Juggling family, a career, and a hobby like flying, which sometimes takes you away from family, requires creative scheduling. I fly on my least busy days, Mondays and Fridays, typically before work because I know if I put it off to the end of the day, work, my family’s needs, or something else will push it aside. If I do fly of the evening, once my favorite time to fly, I struggle with the guilt of missing my son’s bedtime routine.
Moms who fly for a living schedule their routines to protect the time they have with their family when they aren’t working. Dawn Cook, a Delta Air Lines first officer and co-founder of the FAST Facebook group, learned to create a balance in 2013 after returning home to Charlotte, North Carolina, from an overnight flight from Bogota, Colombia, to John F. Kennedy International Airport, where she was based at the time, and scrambling to get her then-10-month-old daughter to a swimming lesson. The pair arrived five minutes late, her daughter spit up in her hair, and Cook lost her shoe in the parking lot while dashing in. “But I was like, ‘I’m here. We’re doing this.’” She later worked out a plan that would allow her daughter to miss a few classes and make them up later. “There’s no instructions for being a mom, you figure it out and make it work for you. Take it one day at a time.”
Being a pilot also defines a part of many of our lives and starting a family doesn’t change that. Emma Heering, captain of a VistaJet Challenger 605 in Edinburgh, Scotland, completed simulator training at CAE in Montreal this spring after nearly two years of not flying after having her first child, Harvey. “He is my world, he’s my priority,” Heering said during a lunch break from the sim, acknowledging that she felt as if part of her was lying dormant while she was out of the flight deck. “I want my son to be proud of me and to have a good example of how life can be,” she said.
“There’s something about doing something you love.”Encouraging her daughter, Kaylee, to follow her dreams was important for Stants: “We demonstrated for her that you can have a family, and still follow your own goals, and still be a strong family unit at the same time.”
Hills, who is working to become a career flight instructor, uses the effort she is putting into mastering the material to talk to her daughters about working through things that can be difficult: “Progress takes hard work, and I don’t hide my struggles from them so that they won’t give up when they encounter hard times either.”
Going for it
Jayme Warren and her husband, Brandon, were both active duty in the U.S. Navy when they married and had their first child. Because she was on an instructor tour in the Sikorsky MH–60R and her husband was a Boeing F/A–18 Super Hornet pilot, the two had never lived together until their first child was 5 months old. “There never is a perfect time to start a family,” she said. Warren applied for a three-year sabbatical through the Navy’s Career Intermission Program from 2016 to 2019. They also had their second child during that time.
“Keep in mind your career will always be there, the opportunity to have a family won’t,” said Warren, who was promoted to lieutenant commander in March and will resume flight duties this summer. “When you’re in your 60s and ready to retire, you’re going to want to have your family to spend time with.”
Carole Hopson, a board member for the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, decided to change careers and become a professional pilot in 1998 when she was in her mid-30s. After saving money for two years, she quit her job and trained full time, completing the needed certificates and ratings just three months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Because of the resulting airline hiring halt, she and her husband, Michael, decided to start a family. Raising their two sons (Joshua and Coleman), the 2008 recession, and writing a book pushed her dream of flying for the airlines further out, but it never left her.
“There’s something to be said for enjoying your career and enjoying your children and not having the two compete for your attention all at once. There’s something to be said for enjoying…a beautiful life,” Hopson said. Once Hopson’s sons were in middle school, and she was about to turn 50, she decided it was now or never. Her husband changed jobs so that he could be home with the boys more, and she took the plunge in 2015. Now, she is a first officer with United Airlines.
Other moms find joy in doing both at the same time.
Deborah Donnelly-McLay prides herself on being able to be home almost every day while raising her two children as a single mom and flying professionally for United Parcel Service. She flew night flights for UPS for 15 years and just recently switched to days now that her daughter, Therese, is 20 and her son, John, is 18 (both are pilots). The night schedule enabled her to get her young children ready for school, help with homework, run to extracurricular activities, feed them dinner, and get them ready for bed. Her mother stayed with the children at night, creating a special bond with their grandmother, and Donnelly-McLay slept while the children were at school.
“Sometimes it’s not the best schedule, but it’s the schedule that works,” she said, adding that it was “definitely well worth it to be home and have time with them.”
Whether you fly professionally or recreationally, have young children or teenagers, continue to follow your passions. “You bring your best self to the family and to your job when you are growing and developing as an individual too,” Matteson said. “There’s something about doing something you love.”
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