Flying First-Class: Tara Parkhurst
There’s something awe-inspiring about viewing our world from
above — about seeing from a lofty vantage neighborhoods and
parks, highways and lakes that we pass every day on the ground.
It’s Tara Parkhurst’s favorite way to take in the Fox Valley. And
as a private pilot, that bird’s-eye view is hers each time she hops into the cockpit.
Parkhurst is the museum educator for the Experimental Aircraft
Association (EAA) in Oshkosh. And as an EAA employee, she
has the opportunity to join the staff flying club, which includes
access to the club’s single-engine airplane. So when Parkhurst accepted the educator position, it only made sense to take private pilot lessons, earn her certificate and grab hold of the Cessna 172’s yoke to soar leisurely over the city that holds a special place in the heart of any aviation fan.
She started taking lessons in 2014 and earned her license in 2015. With her visual flight rules rating, she can check out the flying club’s plane and fly solo, steering the white single-engine plane with a maroon stripe over Wittman Regional Airport.
It’s in a child’s nature to look to the sky in awe, to let their wild imaginations dream of taking flight among the clouds. But that’s not how Parkhurst recalls her childhood musings, despite a career path that led to the EAA museum.
“Part of my job as the museum educator is to read a lot of scholarship essays. Applicants often will say they dreamed of flying since they were young children,” Parkhurst said. “I was never like that. I always thought of flight as being a passenger on a plane; I never even dreamed of piloting an aircraft myself.”
Parkhurst didn’t grow up immersed in aviation. She cared more about history. Initially she aimed to become a history professor. But she realized she was perhaps better suited to high school history. After attaining her master’s degree from UW-La Crosse, she became a history
teacher at Omro High School for a decade.
“I was approached to apply at EAA for the educator position because of my love for aviation within the history classes I taught,” Parkhurst said.
She has a soft spot for her favorite historical female aviators: the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). During World War II, more than 1,000 women became trained pilots who tested planes, transported aircraft and conducted training so the male pilots could fulfill the wartime combat roles.
“It was hard for me to earn my certificate,” Parkhurst said. “They had all this adversity and were able to do it. They’re so inspiring. We try to get a WASP to speak at GirlVenture each year because their stories are so invaluable and I learn something new each year.”
Today, she creates specialized curriculum for classes and field trips for students ranging from kindergarteners to high school students.
“Each day is different, from teaching to the variety of education projects I am involved with. I have the opportunity to teach a new group of students each time and foster their interest in aviation,”
she said. “The fun part is to differentiate the instruction in a way to engage all ages.” Parkhurst tends to work most with third- through fifth-graders, whose curriculum touches on the forces of flight. But she doesn’t focus solely on field trips. Parkhurst spends a lot of time in meetings developing new programs, overseeing several scholarships awarded by the EAA in addition to planning the WomenVenture and GirlVenture Camp portions of the EAA AirVenture fly-in in July.
WomenVenture is a three-day program featuring networking events and a luncheon with keynote speaker U.S. Air Force Col. Kim Campbell,
a combat pilot who flew an A-10 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. During one mission, her jet sustained extensive damage from anti-aircraft fire, yet she safely piloted it back to her base manually.
GirlVenture Camp is a three-day program for high school-aged girls that introduces them to careers in aviation and aims to inspire in them the exploration of flight. Both of these events are not only crucial to the growth of EAA, but also important to Parkhurst. The world of aviation is a decidedly male-centric one. Only about 6 percent of certified pilots are female.
She keeps those statistics in mind as she educates students. When she teaches field trip groups, she likes to query her classes on their career goals. “I ask them how many of them would ever want to be a pilot,” Parkhurst said. “I love telling them how I am a teacher and a pilot. I never cease to get looks that say, ‘You don’t look like a pilot.’ I love that, because I tell them, ‘If I can be a pilot, anyone can.’ I never grew up around airplanes and no one in my family has any aviation connections. It was not until I was in my 30s that I had exposure to aviation. My goal is to show kids at a young age that anything is possible.”
As a mother of a 6-year-old, she uses that same philosophy in her parenting strategy. Her son, Leo, is still a little apprehensive about flight, and has yet to accompany her in the plane. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t head-over-heels for airplanes and the EAA like her classroom students. “Whether I am teaching my son at home the ideas behind why his balsa glider does or does not fly or a group of students in the classroom, I love seeing the excitement for aviation,” Parkhurst said. “I have been able to have my son’s school visit EAA and I have had the awesome pleasure of teaching him and his friends. I love that my son loves my work and wants to visit as much as he can.”
For Parkhurst, though, flight time is more than a fun idea. It is one way for her to step away from life’s stressors and relax.
“The feeling of flying a plane is similar for me to going out for a run,” she said. “Running is a wonderful way for me to focus on keeping my mind and body healthy. When I got into the plane for the first time, I had this rush — I felt so empowered.”
Now that she has her license, the first-time euphoria has faded, replaced with a sense of contentment. “I feel in control. It is my time to forget everything else and focus on flying. I think about how I am controlling an aircraft — something not many people, and definitely not women, can do. I look down to see a different perspective on the places I usually visit in a car.”
The only sight she’s not particularly fond of from the plane is open water below her. At Wittman Regional Airport the largest and most commonly used runway runs east to west. Because of the proximity to Lake Winnebago, that means a pilot is either taking off over the lake or landing while descending over the lake.
“I like to know there’s land next to me,” she laughed. Heading out for a flight, while romantic in theory, is loaded with tasks and preparations. The pilot must map out a path to get to her destination, decide if the weather is acceptable, pull out the plane, fill the gas tanks, file a flight plan and conduct a lengthy and detailed preflight check of the aircraft. The sheer magnitude of the duties can prevent a pilot from deciding to take flight. Add to that her family and work obligations (especially as the EAA’s signature event AirVenture gears up to welcome around 600,000 visitors July 22-28) and Parkhurst said it is easy to fall out of practice. She’s looking forward to re-committing to her flight routine in fall. w