Aviation Background

A little about my background and start in aviation….

According to my mother, I was fascinated with airplanes and rockets from a young age. My family was not well off (my father permanently disabled in an accident when I was very young). I remember around the time I was 11 or 12 I made the decision that I wanted to be a pilot. I started taking various part time jobs save money to learn how to fly. While I was in high school, I moved out on my own to escape an abusive homelife, and I started taking flight lessons with my meager earnings, earning a Private ASEL ticket shortly before graduation. I started saving money again, and eventually tried to attend the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Science flight program, but a family tragedy ended up with me leaving college without a degree, saddled with loan debt, unable to pay the steep flight fees and tuition even with scholarships and part time jobs. For quite a few years I drifted from job to job, from paramedic, to wildlife work, trying to pay off student loans, and always looking up at the sky, feeling lost because I was not flying. Eventually I came up with a plan to get back in college, get a degree, and enough of a career to afford to fly at least recreationally. Roughly 12 years after I had gotten my private ASEL ticket, I added a Private Glider rating as my BFR to get back into flying. To my surprise, I fell in love with soaring, and bought my first airplane, which was in fact a glider, a Grob 102. I flew gliders for 5 years while I worked full time, finished a BS and later a graduate degree from Harvard. I decided to try flying hangliders as well. Unfortunately, I was critically injured as I was about to start competition hangliding, and partially paralyzed for months. It would be nearly two years before I could fly again. After I recovered, I added a new rating as a BFR (Single Engine Sea), but I flew less and less as I finished up my first graduate degree and started a doctorate, determined to try to get another degree to help me afford my dream of an airport home on a grass strip and my own taildragger or even a little seaplane. It was hard to stay focused on the long grind for a doctorate, and after two years I switched my research focus to a hybrid flight simulation/affective computing focus. After I graduated, I was finally able to purchase a small seaplane (a Searey) and afford my airpark dream home 28 years after first learning to fly. I had achieved my dream at last! I even joined the board of directors for the airpark, something a stereotypical shy computer geek like myself had never even considered! I started participating in fly-ins and EAA builds and flying Young Eagles!

….but the computer science career I had chosen was stressful, and the technology track I had once loved almost as much as flying became something I was no longer interested in as the politics and cutthroat agenda wore on my psyche. Eventually I grew to loathe the job that left me too stressed out and exhausted to fly every day after work as I had dreamed. I began wondering if I could somehow look back to my childhood dream of being a professional pilot, but I was afraid. Afraid I was too old to succeed, afraid my family would condemn such foolhardiness, afraid no one would hire someone who was older, and afraid I would not be able to keep my home and airplane on meager newbie pilot earnings.

Flash forward to early 2020. The Covid-19 pandemic struck. After a long tenure at Disney that had culminated in a position as a Principal Engineer I was suddenly furloughed after being told my position was secure. For a few months I floundered, angry and feeling betrayed. Then I wondered…dare I dip into my retirement savings and try for my dream so many decades past? My savings were not particularly impressive…I had decimated my 401K to buy my airpark dream home…and still I wondered and dreamed… I decided to go for it, took most of my savings and planned to enter accelerated pilot programs…. but they were canceled due to the increasing severity of the pandemic.

My neighbor suggested I try for a CFI-Sport license, and I thought “why not?” It will let me try my hand at teaching. I wondered, could I make a little money as a sport CFI and work toward all the airplane and glider ratings I ever wanted? My “10-in-10” plan was born. I would get 10 flight and ground ratings in 10 months! CFI Sport, Commercial Glider/ASES/ASES! CFI Glider, Instrument Airplane, CFI Airplane, CFI Instrument, Advanced Ground Instructor, and Instrument Ground Instructor. Maybe if I could pull off the 10-in-10-plan, I could even add on Commercial MEL/MES/MEI and go for 13-in-13!

In late July I started training for CFI Sport and around that time I started being active in the “Ladies in Flight Training” Facebook group. Then a setback…while hiking with neighbors I ended up falling off a 20’ lakeside cliff and broke my left arm again…. which I had almost lost in the hangliding crash. I was horrified that I had possibly destroyed my dream. Initially my arm and shoulder were almost immovable. I hung on to hope though and took all ten of the knowledge tests in July and August. I started aggressive physical therapy and started flying once I could move my arm. It was painful, but I managed to get my CFI Sport Airplane on September 23rd. In October I planned to start accelerated training for my remaining airplane ratings. Bad weather and multiple maintenance issues (including an expedited return from a flight with a severe fuel leak) slowed me down a bit. Despite check rides being rescheduled 10 times since September, I’ve added Commercial Glider, Commercial Airplane, and both Ground Instructor Ratings. I am almost halfway to my goal! I have two more check rides scheduled this month (Instrument Airplane and Commercial Seaplane), and the CFI Glider check ride scheduled in February. I’m hoping the complete the Searey Factory Authorized Instructor program (which I can do as a CFI Sport), before finishing my final CFI/CFII ratings. I’m starting to feel like my dream can be real!

It has been a challenging year, trying to juggle the training, and watching the budget as funds dwindle. Multiple deaths in the family made it hard to keep my spirits up. Some bad experiences with instructors and DPEs tested my emotional limits. The months of physical therapy for my arm (still on-going) was exhausting. I felt like I was too weak, and that I was going to fail again, as I did so long ago at Embry-Riddle. I found myself leaning heavily on the LIFT (Ladies in Flight Training) Facebook group members for encouragement and have tried to offer encouragement and support in return. This is something that does not come easily to me as an introvert. Seeing others struggling so hard, women who shared my dream and who had persevered through hardships that made mine seem trivial by comparison has given me the strength to keep going day after day and week after week.

Long term, I am hoping to open my own flight school, and perhaps even a small Seaplane Air Tour operation on Lake Norman from my airpark. I’ve started trying to certify the three flight simulators I built for my dissertation and post-doctoral research as part of the flight training program. I want to be in a position where I could offer an annual scholarship to a young woman in high school every year for flight training and aviation maintenance to give back to the aviation community that has been so welcoming to me, and so that others might not have to wait so very long for their own dreams of flight.

I was incredibly surprised that someone nominated me for the Grand Dames of Aviation Group. I don’t really see myself as being special or as any great aviation pioneer. I’m just a woman who is trying to recapture a lost childhood dream, and to reach back to the young girl that looked at the sky and longed to fly and let her know I would not let her down, and our dream WILL come true.

-Shannon Marie Moon