Passion, smarts fuel Tampa flight instructor, 24

DAVIS ISLANDS

A Plant High School junior listens intently as her instructor, who looks more like a classmate, explains how they will fly the Cessna off the runway at Peter O. Knight Airport.

"We'll work on patterns next week," Kristy Bolingbroke is telling her, before guiding the student out of the building for a preflight check.

Katya Sandino, 16, could be strolling through the mall or headed to a beach this Saturday morning along with her 24-year-old instructor. But a passion for flight has brought both from their homes on Davis and Harbour islands to the Atlas Aviation Center at the airport.

"I think I study this more than I study for school," Sandino said minutes before takeoff.

Bolingbroke, who has been flying for six years and teaching for two, knows that dedication. Certified by the Federal Aviation Association, the baby-faced, easygoing woman loves teaching others how to fly.

"It's not like work at all," she said.

But she also understands the importance of what she teaches.

Every decision that pilots make in the sky determines how they will land.

So Bolingbroke eases into the passenger seat determined to let Sandino make her own mistakes — including a bouncy landing or two.

• • •

Bolingbroke's path to becoming a certified flight instructor began with her father when her family lived just outside Toronto.

"He was always into flying and planes," she said. "And when we moved to Sarasota, he encouraged me and my brother to give it a try."

The flight was exhilarating for her. Soaring and being in control, she thought, "Yeah. I could do this."

Bolingbroke kept going back until she got her private pilot's license, learning in an airspace crowded with CEOs and private jets.

Professional pilot jargon and the constant radio chatter intimidated her at first. So she bought her own handheld radio and would drive out to the airport and listen from the ground, gaining familiarity with what seemed like an endless list of acronyms.

"That's what I tell my students to do," Bolingbroke said. "It's easier that way."

At the same time, she was enrolled in Manatee Community College accumulating credits to transfer to the University of Tampa.

The lifelong athlete recalled an experience on a tennis court with her male competitors. The lawyers and accountants were telling what they did, so she said she was a certified flight instructor and private pilot.

"Yeah? And I'm an astronaut," the next man in the circle said.

Bolingbroke was undaunted.

But she is something of an anomaly.

Women accounted for only 6 percent of the 590,000 pilots in the United States in 2007, and only 6,232 of more than 92,000 certified flight instructors, according to Women in Aviation International, a nonprofit organization that monitors and acts as a resource for women in the field.

"I like being different," Bolingbroke said.

• • •

While studying business at the University of Tampa, Bolingbroke found the aviation school at Peter O. Knight and continued her lessons there. When she was certified, she strolled into Atlas Aviation and asked if any flight instructors were needed.

"They knew me pretty well since I was already here, so it was an informal interview process."

Along the way, she has taught students with the same love for flying that she has, including a 12-year-old who saves his allowance for lessons.

About two or three times a year he saves enough to come by, she said. And because you must be 17 and have 40 hours of flight time to get a pilot's license, he may be well on his way to achieving that goal.

Sandino found out about the flight lessons from an acquaintance who had given it a try and recommended her young female teacher.

"After I first did it, I wanted to definitely get my pilot's license," she said.

That's the kind of dedication needed to fly, Bolingbroke said.

"It takes a certain type of person to be a pilot. Some stuff, like meticulousness or seriousness, isn't learned." She says she works only with students who take the task seriously.

Recent plane crashes in New York, one of them fatal and involving a pilot from Lutz, have turned attention to piloting skill.

But flying those kinds of planes involve different training than what Bolingbroke offers.

"I don't fly any aircraft that large, so I don't face the same issues those pilots do," she said.

Although many certified flight instructors go on to become commercial airline pilots, Bolingbroke doesn't want to become what she calls a "bus driver of the industry."

"It's a bad lifestyle, working and working for not that much pay and not being able to see or really talk to your passengers."

And like other businesses in the recession, the airline industry and flight instructors are feeling financial hardship through layoffs and furloughs.

Bolingbroke said she will continue teaching and flying corporate bigwigs until she figures out how to meld her piloting skills with the master's of business administration degree she earned recently from UT.

"It's the best job in the world," she said. "I get paid to take training flights to the Keys and the Bahamas or even to Charlotte County for lunch."

Robbyn Mitchell can be reached at (813) 226-3373 or rmitchell@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

Lift off for $100

If you're interested in taking the controls, Atlas Aviation has $100 introductory flights available. Call (813) 251-1752 for information.

Passion, smarts fuel Tampa flight instructor, 24 02/26/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 26, 2009 3:30am]

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