Fledglings fly under 'Goose's' wing Instructor guides novice helicopter pilots

December 20, 1992|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Staff Writer

She works out of an office not much bigger than a closet.

The job forces her to work long hours, live close by and -- most important -- calm the nerves of white-knuckled students about to whirl themselves and their tall, red-haired instructor into the sky.

Her nickname is "Goose."

She is Charmienne Hughes, a helicopter flight instructor and owner of Triad Aviation Inc., a one-woman operation that offers aerial photography, surveys and sightseeing from a leased helicopter at the Carroll County Regional Airport.

Ms. Hughes is one of the few female helicopter instructors around.

"She's a very unusual gal," said Jim Platt, a former president of the Mid-Atlantic Helicopter Association, a non-profit group that promotes safety and heliport development.

"There are very few women instructors. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, I have found few that were good. She does very well."

Ms. Hughes learned to fly helicopters four years ago after embarking on a helicopter-hiking trip with her mother in southwestern Canada.

"We got in that helicopter, and I had a big grin on my face," recalled Ms. Hughes, 39. "I told my mom, 'I know what I want to do when I grow up.' "

Ms. Hughes earned her private, commercial and certified flight instructor certificates within 13 months of that trip. Then the Boston native, who has a sociology degree, left her 10-year job as a Navy program analyst to become a flight instructor and commercial pilot at Hyde Field in Clinton, Prince George's County.

She moved to Westminster 18 months later to become a chief flight instructor for a private company. When the company folded, Ms. Hughes decided to go into business for herself.

"I had a lot of support from people interested in backing me," she said. "It was a tough decision, but I decided to do it. If I fell flat on my face, it would be my own doing."

Ms. Hughes' 2-year-old business has done well despite an economic recession and bad weather. Her instructional costs range from $6,150 for a private pilot certificate to $19,950 for a commercial pilot certificate.

"I'm surviving," Ms. Hughes said. "This business is very weather-dependent. Weekends have been awful.

"If I can survive hard economic times and bad weather, I'll be OK. I just keep plugging away."

Mr. Platt, who runs his own charter helicopter service out of Reisterstown, said Ms. Hughes has survived in a tough, competitive business because "she's good. She's personable."

"She works very hard out there," he said. "She's got low overhead. And she's very talented, and that helps."

Teaching others to fly helicopters is demanding but rewarding work, Ms. Hughes said.

"Flying a helicopter equals six to nine hours of driving. It's pretty intense. Driving helicopters is hands-on from the minute you start the rotors.

"There's a lot that needs to be covered before turning someone loose," she said.

Ms. Hughes uses a Robinson R-22 helicopter for her teaching. She holds her ground school in a large room -- shared with another tenant -- adjacent to her office, which contains a pair of desks, a computer and filing cabinet.

She has trained about 50 students, most of whom have been interested in becoming commercial pilots. One of them is Michael Royer, a 34-year-old builder who is working toward his commercial license. He gives Ms. Hughes high marks.

"She actually gets into her students and really knows them," said Mr. Royer, who confessed that taking the controls for the first time was nerve-wracking. "She knows their fears. She has to. She has to find out what's going on in their head. She's putting her life on the line, too."

That's where Ms. Hughes' sociology background comes in handy.

Mr. Royer drives to Westminster from Solomons Island every weekend. He was persuaded to hire Ms. Hughes after talking to her on the telephone for about an hour 18 months ago. He's already earned his private license.

"When I called, I thought I was talking to a secretary or something, because she answered the phone," he recalled. "But there was not a question she couldn't answer. I was so impressed with how the woman presented herself."

Mr. Royer said Ms. Hughes cares about her students and is just as excited as they are when they are given the controls to go solo. She worries about them.

That's how she got her nickname. Her students dubbed her "Goose," after Mother Goose, for her maternal worrying when they took the controls alone for the first time.

Besides running her own business, Ms. Hughes is president of the Mid-Atlantic Helicopter Association.

She is also a member of the Women's International Pilots Association, also known as the Whirly Girls, a professional organization for female helicopter pilots. The non-profit organization has only 700 members worldwide.

"There just aren't many women in aviation," she said.

Ms. Hughes is a strong safety advocate both in and out of the classroom. She is an accident prevention counselor for the Federal Aviation Administration, and she conducts safety seminars and provides safety counseling to pilots.

"I'm real big on safety," she said. "Safety is my whole thing. My mom said she would support me in all this if I promised not to do something stupid. That's the premise on which I started my training. I do my absolute best to be a safe pilot."

She said a lot of people have misconceptions about the safety of aviation. "It's safer than driving the Beltway. It's not a dangerous profession," she said.

Before helicopters, she was involved in knitting, her church choir and church activities. Now there's her work and flying. She lives just six minutes from the airport.

"It's a 24-hour job when you own your own business," she said. "I wish I could say I did things for fun. If I have a couple of hours on a rainy day, I do laundry and read a book -- if I'm lucky."

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