Learning How to Fly a Plane Gave Me the Confidence to Change My Life

The more comfortable I became inside the cockpit, the more confident I felt out in the world.
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Alyssa Citorik
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The more comfortable I became inside the cockpit, the more confident I felt out in the world.

If this past year has taught me anything, it’s that life-changing moments can happen in the blink of an eye.

It was the beginning of 2016, and I was three years post-grad. I hadn’t even turned 25 but already had obtained a well-paying career and was sharing a great apartment with my wonderful boyfriend and our two dogs. In my mind, I thought I had everything. But for some reason, I woke up every morning in a daze. Something was missing in my life. I had no idea what it was, but I knew that without it I somehow felt stuck.

My first instinct was to change my job. Having worked at a digital marketing agency for the last two-and-a-half years, I figured that it must have been the stress of constantly working on client projects that was weighing me down. I had always had a lot of creative energy that I felt I wasn’t using. So I decided to pack up my stuff and head to another company where my role would be more flexible and creative.

I think it was only about two weeks into my new role when I realized that changing jobs had simply been a band-aid for something much deeper. Don’t get me wrong, this new opportunity was exciting in many different ways, but deep down I knew that it was only really surface level. Something was still keeping me awake at night. Something still needed to change.

My next hope was that maybe the cold, grey Vermont winter had me in a funk. Maybe if I was able to get away for a little while to reset my mind, I would feel better. Luckily, my boyfriend, AJ, and I had booked a trip to Flagstaff, Arizona, awhile back. We had planned a simple trip to visit his father. What I never could have predicted was that this trip would set into motion something that would change my life forever.

It all started when AJ’s father offered to pay for me to learn how to fly; as a lifelong pilot, flying was a huge part of his life. He had collected and refurbished many planes that he planned to leave to his six children, all of whom had been flying since they were teenagers. Although he had been flying for years, AJ had never officially completed his training. In his father’s mind, AJ would finally get his license if this was something that we could do together. 

The offer was so gracious and intriguing, I couldn't say no.

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I have always been a very “play it safe” kind of girl. I was always up for a challenge, but only if I didn’t have to stray to far from home. I found comfort in familiarity and sticking to my strengths; stepping outside of my comfort zone wasn’t easy for me. The idea of even getting into one of those small planes absolutely terrified me. How the heck could anyone expect me to be brave enough to fly one? Not to mention all the knowledge that I would have to accumulate to understand weather and flight planning. I sucked at math and science in school; hell, I couldn’t even add without a calculator. 

And just like that, before I even started, I had already convinced myself that I would never be able to be a pilot. But I knew that I at least had give it a real try, even if it was just for AJ’s sake.

My first flight was a blur. I remember experiencing a multitude of emotions, the most prevalent one being fear. The hour-long flight was both exhilarating and nauseating. When we landed, I was covered in sweat and full of dread. Yes, it was fun, but now I definitely knew that I could not do it. Everything was so foreign to me; how would I ever be able to keep up and understand everything? And even if I did learn, how would I ever be brave or confident enough to get into that plane every single lesson?

The answer to that question became apparent after my third flight lesson. It was my 25th birthday, and I had decided to schedule a lesson before work. That morning I experienced my first unexpected event as a pilot. Right after take off, my instructor’s door flew wide open. As he tried to hold it closed, he turned and calmly explained to me that we needed to turn back around and land. We called the tower, turned around and made our approach. It wasn’t until we had landed, closed his door tightly and taken back off that I realized how well I had handled the situation. I had stayed calm, listened to my instructor and together we fixed the issue quickly. There had been no time for fear — only action. 

As I was walking to my car after the flight, I realized that this pilot thing may actually be something I could do after all.

That flight changed everything for me. The more comfortable I became inside the cockpit, the more confident I felt out in the world. I began to realize that my unhappiness didn’t stem from something missing in my life, but instead from my overall perspective on it. For the last three years, I had done everything in my life the way that I thought I was supposed to; I had taken the safe path. The more I flew, the more brave and ambitious I became. I didn’t want to follow a path anymore, I wanted to make my own. I wanted to wake up and start every day the way I had on my birthday: feeling alive and free. I had dreams, and I wanted to chase them. I kept thinking that flying had come into my life so unexpectedly, what else was out there waiting for me?

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Four months into my flight training, my best friend’s mother died after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer. Her death shook me to my core. Suddenly, life seemed so fragile, so unpredictable. The next day, I quit my 9-to-5 office job. I had been thinking about leaving for a few weeks, but wasn’t sure if it was the right decision. I had never experienced the real world without a secure income and set schedule — why would I give up good money and stability just to chase after a feeling? 

I knew it was reckless, but I also knew that it was right. For now, my path didn’t include just punching a timecard and waiting for the next vacation. I didn’t want to be living for the future; I wanted to be living for the present.

Along with flying, I had recently rediscovered my love for writing. I started my blog and began working toward my longtime aspiration to write a book. Years ago this idea seemed silly to me, but these days, my thoughts have changed. I realized that if I wanted to do something, the only thing holding me back was myself. 

It has been almost a year since I first became a student pilot, and I still remind myself of this daily. There are days that I’m still afraid to move forward in my training (did you know they make you fly a certain amount of hours by yourself!?!?!? AHHH!) but I have to remind myself that I am fully capable — that I can do it.

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Learning how to fly has changed my life in so many different ways. It helped me recognize my own bravery and take more control over my life. It encouraged me to take chances and stop just walking through life always feeling as if something was missing. It has encouraged me to discover more about myself and follow my passions, and to realize there is more to life than just work and money.

Most importantly, it has taught me that sometimes true happiness comes from being able to look at the world from a new perspective — in my case, it's realizing how small my problems seem when I'm looking down at them from above.