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Flight instructor returns to the skies

Kenny Kemp
Brenda Jackson is ready for students now that she has been licensed as a FAA-certified flight instructor. She is with Northern Wings Flight School at Executive Air at Yeager Airport.
Kenny Kemp Brenda Jackson poses with the crew of flight instructors who helped her prepare for the written and flying sections of the certification process. From left are Joe Beam, Allen LaDriere, Jackson and Ernie Jackson.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Brenda Jackson said she's pinching herself to see if it's real -- that she really is a FAA-licensed flight instructor.

"It's a dream come true," said the grandmother of three.

She credits her father, her daughter and her flight instructors -- one of whom she married -- for becoming perhaps the first woman to teach flying out of Executive Air, the private terminal at Yeager Airport.

Jackson received her certification Sept. 6 in Cincinnati after a two-hour oral exam and demonstrating her competence to fly a high-performance plane as well as a one-engine Cessna.

She started flying nearly 40 years ago, then stopped for about 25 years before returning to the air in 2009.

"I soloed in an airplane before I was legal to drive," she said.

Jackson grew up in Fayette County, the daughter of a coal miner who loved flying. He took her to the Beckley Mall once when a flight instructor had parked his planes there as a marketing event. She sat in one of them. "I was hooked. I had to learn how to fly."

She was still 14 when she took her first flying lesson from Frank Thomas. She thinks it cost $15 an hour. By law, she couldn't fly solo until she turned 16.

"I remember I was scared to death. I took off and came around and I could see the runway. Then I knew I could do it, I had done it many times. It was all thrill from there -- it's still a thrill to me," she recalled in a recent interview at Executive Air.

With her father's financial help, Jackson continued taking flying lessons at the Beckley airport after she graduated from Mount Hope High School. When she got her commercial license, she was told that she was only the second woman to do so in Fayette County. Her next step was to obtain a license to fly a multiengine plane.

And then she got married.

She and her late husband, William Gilland, a drywall finisher, had two children. Jackson said she was mostly a stay-at-home mother, working periodically as a telemarketer or cashier. They had enough money for her to renew her flying license one time.

"I probably flew three hours in 21 years," she said.

A few years ago, her daughter, Nancy Welch, started taking flying lessons at the Beckley Airport. Jackson went along to watch her grandchildren. "I had no desire to fly. I was more interested in my grandkids," said Jackson.

"My daughter kept saying, 'Come on, Mom, you've got to do this. You got to give it a try one more time.'"

So she did. In October 2009, she called Northern Wings Flight School at Executive Air and made an appointment to renew her flying license.

After her first lesson with flight instructor Ernie Jackson, she said, "I knew he was going to be someone very special to me."

Ernie Jackson said his wife of 50 years had died, and then his son passed away a year later. "I was getting lonely. They say people who are married live longer."

Brenda and Ernie Jackson were married two years ago.

Ernie Jackson has taught people how to fly planes since 1969. One of his early students was Joe Beam, who owns Skylane Flight School, also at Executive Air. It was Beam who helped Brenda Jackson prepare for the flight test for instructor certification when health problems grounded her husband. "Ernie, Joe and Al [LaDriere] helped me with the written part," she said.

Jackson was asked what had changed in the 20-plus years since she had flown an airplane. "Gas prices got a lot higher," she answered.

She added that there are more restrictions for landing at Yeager, and there were no GPS systems when she first learned to fly. There is still, though, the sense of freedom, of not being bound to earth, that Jackson loves about flying. "It's out and out awesome."

She describes herself as a cautious flier, stressing safety first. "I've been called a chicken quite a few times. I say, 'I would rather be a live chicken than a dead duck.' I would like to continue to live a lot longer and fly more years."

Ernie Jackson said he knew his wife would make a good teacher, and he encouraged her to become certified. "It's not easy," he said.

He doesn't remember any other female flight instructor at Executive or its predecessor, Eagle Aviation.

With her instrument a rating and instructor's license, Ernie Jackson wants his wife to shoot for a certificate add-on to be able to teach flying by instruments in bad weather.

He pointed out that at 78, he's significantly older than his 53-year-old wife. "I want her to do everything. When I am not around, she'll have the abilities to work with. She'll have an occupation and be able to run the business."

Reach Rosalie Earle@earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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