Zoe Steel - UND private pilot

Despite the fact that I’ve worked in business aviation for nearly 20 years, I do not come from an “aviation family.” Flying is not “in our blood,” and we’re not steeped in lineage and legacy like so many in our industry.

That is, until our oldest daughter, Zoe, told us she wanted to become a pilot. We were surprised and excited—and, admittedly a little nervous.

Let me tell you, as much as I know about recruiting pilots, I didn’t know the first thing about becoming one. As I’ve discovered, it’s daunting to be a first-time parent with a child bent on piloting, and then going through this experience with her.

As we visited colleges and considered various programs, we all felt overwhelmed. Many of my colleagues suggested that Zoe NOT get an aviation degree. Rather, I was told she should train at an independent school. Others felt that a comprehensive college program was the only way to go.

There are so many paths, opinions and options to consider. And when you “don’t know what you don’t know,” you fear you’ll make the wrong decision.

Once we settled on the University of North Dakota (UND), we had to figure out how we were going to pay for the cost of the program. Which is steep!

By the time Zoe graduates, we calculate that she will be about $150K in debt. She’s working, however, and we’re contributing. But it’s scary to ask an 18-year-old to make such a significant investment. Especially when you consider that many young people change their minds about college and careers!

Turning Point

Last September, Zoe began her pilot training at UND. Initially, it was intimidating for her and us that so many students already had their private pilot’s license. In some ways, she felt she was starting from behind the curve. But while she did her best to keep up, she fell behind her classmates. This is when self-doubt kicked in.

She also had concerns about her instructor and despite being young and energetic, she found it difficult to advocate for herself. (It took everything in me to not reach out to my contacts at UND and intervene. But I knew she needed to find a way to speak up for herself.)

Her freshman year came and went and she had not finished her private pilot training. In fact, she stayed through the summer—after all her classmates had returned home—and continued to plod along.

Racked with fear, she called us several times, wondering if she should give up. She felt she wasn’t good enough or smart enough, and a whole host of other self-doubts crept in. She also felt she’d wasted her time and money.

“One of the hardest things I had to overcome was the constant thought that I was not cut out for this major,” Zoe shared with me. “Everyone would tell me how proud they were of me, and how amazing I was doing. But I never felt that way about myself. Then I began to REALLY apply myself and think of my end-goal as well as why I started in the first place. Nobody wants to disappoint the people who are rooting for them. But the turning point for me was when I realized that the person I didn’t want to disappoint was ME.”

That’s when things started to change.

Over the summer, Zoe soloed for the first time. This singular feat brought her a bundle of self-confidence. Then she passed her stage check (oral and flying). And now, she’s awaiting the perfect weather for her solo cross-country.

That said, if she doesn’t earn her pilot license this month, she must re-take ground school. This means even more time and money.

As she—and we—are discovering, with every step forward, there’s a step back. The silver lining is, she’s building tremendous resilience along the way.

Zoe’s Lessons Learned

With all of this in the rear-view mirror, if I could choose one thing to change about our journey, it would be to try and give voice to these struggles. I’ve learned that we should try and normalize the idea of failure, not let it frighten and consume us.

Zoe shared with me that when she spoke individually with her peers about her struggles, they would, in turn, confess their own fears and doubts. Yet they never addressed them in a group setting.

[Side note: I think UND needs to spot-check the CFI relationships with some frequency. I have to believe our daughter isn’t the only one who needs an invitation to advocate for herself.]

All in all, I’ve learned that it’s dang hard to become a pilot! But I do believe it’s worth it.

“It’s going to be TOUGH,” Zoe told me. But now, when she encounters others in a similar position, she encourages them to “keep your eye on the goal and make sure to reflect on what you’ve already accomplished.”

“I’m only 19 years old and I’ve flown a plane numerous times by myself!” she exclaimed. “Think of setbacks as tools that make you stronger, and think about the future ahead. I keep imagining my future kids saying, ‘My mom flies airplanes all over the world’—that’s pretty cool!”

Even though Zoe is my daughter and I might be just a “smidgeon” biased in her regard, I think her story has some universal appeal. There’s some real meaning for others in her position.

One of the other things I found so uplifting about my post was the other stories of struggle that were shared. In deciding to share Zoe’s struggles on LinkedIn, I was hoping people would be honest and vulnerable so she would know she’s not alone. And they WERE! I’m incredibly grateful for that. Because when the younger generation regards us as more experienced and accomplished, they seldom realize how much we’ve failed before arriving where we are today. And we STILL experience setbacks. Here are two of my favorite examples of overcoming setbacks:

Advice from Julie Goodrich:

YOU ROCK ZOE! And you will have great stories to share with us and future generations. Preparing for my cross-country in a 172, I:

  1. Spilled an entire Diet Mt. Dew in the right seat on my charts.
  2. Had the right door come open during flight.
  3. Flew into restricted airspace at Cape Canaveral.

Zoe, I’m looking forward to following your success!

Advice From Trevor Gagnier:

Zoe, I had 60 hours of instruction over 24 months, and did not realize that progress was not made… My CFI suggested I take up golf instead. Crushed, I gave up. Five years later, I went back at it three days a week, hammering away, and soloed after 36 hours. It all “fell into place,” and my new CFI had better chemistry than the previous one. Now I have three type ratings and over 8000 TT. I’ve been fortunate to fly overseas as well. Keep going! Hard work will be rewarded.

Thanks for listening to Zoe’s story. I hope you can use some of her—and my—experiences and apply them to your own family members’ struggles to succeed. And, again, about the way we regard failure in our careers and our lives, let me close by quoting the legendary poet and writer Maya Angelou, who had this to say on the topic:

“Courage allows the successful woman to fail and learn powerful lessons from the failure. So that in the end, she didn’t fail at all.”

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