Patty Wagstaff is a acrobatic air show performer and was the first woman to win the title of US National Aerobatic Champion. For the past eight years, she has helped train pilots in the Kenya Wildlife Service. Wagstaff joins CNN correspondent Miles O'Brien, who documented her in Africa, tonight for a lecture at the Air and Space Museum. Wagstaff talked to us about flying, the dangers of wildlife flying and how she feels about being in the museum.
How did you get started flying?
Well, my dad was a pilot, so I grew up around aviation. He flew for Japan Airlines. My mom would take me to the airport when I was really little, and I would watch him take off. I’ve been around it my whole life. I always loved airplanes. It was neat because my mom encouraged me to love airplanes. I remember her taking me out to the San Francisco International airport when the first jets took off. They must have been 707s. She had me watch them. I didn’t learn to fly until I moved to Alaska. I was in my late 20s. It had always been my dream to learn. I took lessons, and I just kept going.
You’re primarily an acrobatic pilot, what was the first trick you learned?
I think the first thing we did was a loop and then a roll. Most people learn loops, rolls and spins as the basics.
How do you do those moves?
A loop is a vertical circle. So, you pull the airplane up and you go straight up and then over the top and then make a big circle in the sky. A roll is where you roll the airplane, but it’s on a horizontal plane. You do a little 360, but it’s horizontal. The plane goes over on its back, so you’re inverted, and then it comes back around. They aren’t hard to learn, but they’re hard to do really well.
How did you get involved with the Kenya Wildlife Services?
I was invited to come over and participate in the training program that a man named Dr. Bill Clark had started. It was really his idea. The accident rate was very high at the time, and so they really needed a way to cut back on the accidents. His feeling was that if the pilots learned precision in their flying that their accident rate would drop. And it has. We’ve been doing this since 2001 and just having recurrency training for the pilots has made a big difference.
What exactly is recurrency training?
Recurrency training is just ongoing training. You always need to get training for it. It’s easy to develop bad habits and it’s easy to get sloppy in your flying when you don’t have somebody looking over your shoulder. Even the best pilots, or the most experienced pilots, still get training once in a while. Airline pilots have check flights every six months to keep them in top shape.
What makes the flying that they do in Kenya so difficult?
It’s one of those types of flying that is higher risk by nature. They’re flying alone most of the time in wilderness areas. They don’t have anybody looking over their shoulder, so they really have to maintain that kind of precision on their own. The conditions are rough. There are things that are there that we don’t have here. Things like elephants on the runway, zebras on the runway. Animals run out when you’re not expecting them, things like that. There are more hazards in that wilderness type flying than there are in just going from A to B. Just about everything you can throw at a pilot gets thrown at them. They’re dealing with some pretty high-risk situations.
One of your planes is on display at the Air and Space Museum. How does that feel?
It’s amazing to me. I’ll never really process it I think. Actually it’s pretty cool. The plane just came out of the Pioneers gallery, and it’s hanging in the hallway. I went and saw it last week when I was in town. It’s hanging upside-down. It looks like it’s flying. It’s a really great spot.