2016-05-19 / Front Page

All-Woman Class Pursues Pilot’s Licenses

By Tom Walsh


Instructor Alex Joseph reviews some of the gages and flight instruments in a Cessna’s cockpit at the airport in Middletown with recent co-pilot graduates Jennifer Puerini and Sharyn Harrington. (Photo by Jack Kelly) Instructor Alex Joseph reviews some of the gages and flight instruments in a Cessna’s cockpit at the airport in Middletown with recent co-pilot graduates Jennifer Puerini and Sharyn Harrington. (Photo by Jack Kelly) It was the dead of winter last year. Sharyn Harrington had a friend who pilots small airplanes. Would she like to fly to New Hampshire, her friend wanted to know?

Harrington said she’d love to make the trip—even though it meant landing the Cessna on the ice of Lake Winnipesaukee.

“It was very exciting,” Harrington, a local realtor with Kirby Commercial, recalled recently. “That trip got me totally hooked on flying. And maybe someday I can take aerial photography.”

But first, would-be pilots must satisfactorily complete rigorous flight courses and hands-on instruction. Five Aquidneck Island women recently finished a five-week co-pilot class offered through what is formally known as the “Newport State Airport”— even though the airport is actually located in Middletown.


Prior to take-off, Jennifer Puerini and her husband, Dan, give the plane a preflight inspection. (Photo by Alex Joseph) Prior to take-off, Jennifer Puerini and her husband, Dan, give the plane a preflight inspection. (Photo by Alex Joseph) That this was an all-female class was, by itself, remarkable.

“Every one of them was a good student,” said Alex Joseph, the instructor for the class. “They were all from Aquidneck Island and were all so engaged. They asked a lot of questions, and each had real dynamic personalities. It was a total pleasure to work with them.”

The only hitch with the class was that the airport did not have sufficient space available for two instructors and five students, so the classes were moved to an alternate location in Newport. The inconvenience did not seem to bother students or instructors.

“It would have been nice if the airport had a designated training room,” Joseph said. “But regardless, I like the Middletown airport.”

For Jennifer Puerini, the class worked out just fine.

“The co-pilot course inspired me,” said Puerini, a Newport attorney and another of the five women enrolled. “People don’t realize how important the role of co-pilot can be. Alex focused on the importance of communication between the pilot and co-pilot. As co-pilot, you become a second set of eyes and ears to help the pilot keep an eye out for things. It definitely sparked my enthusiasm for becoming a pilot. I feel comfortable pursuing my pilot’s license. It was a great course.”

“The class mission is to provide candidates with sufficient background to be a useful crew member and resource to the pilot, as opposed to being a passive observer,” Joseph said. “Being engaged in the cockpit and keeping one’s mind occupied with tasks also helps alleviate anxiety and reduces susceptibility to motion sickness. It can also increase the overall safety of the flight.”

Harrington and Puerini both said they plan to pursue full pilot’s licenses, while Joseph said one other member of the class will “definitely” pursue her pilot’s license. He said he believes the two other class members will do the same.

Besides Harrington and Puerini, others taking the class were Sarah Kempen, Kerry Daley and Barb Gradley, Joseph said. Deb Michael was assistant instructor.

“We are seeing more women pilots,” Joseph said. “And that’s a good thing.”

However, he said it was unusual to have a five-member class composed of all women. “I would like to see more women. But most of the time it’s all men,” he said.

Could he explain how he suddenly had an all-woman class?

“For the co-pilot course, some of it might have been encouragement from boyfriends or spouses who are pilots,” Joseph surmised.

Joseph said the aviation industry now faces what he called a “great shortage” of pilots. “Interest in aviation has waned over the years,” he said. “And now, a lot of veteran airline pilots are facing mandatory retirement.” That trend, he added, has not slowed even with airlines increasing the mandatory pilot retirement age from 62 to 65.

“It’s going to become a crisis,” he warned.

And, Joseph said, the price that would-be pilots must pay for a place on the aviation path is steep.

“My mission is to get more people into aviation,” he said. Ground school, which takes place after the co-pilot class, costs would-be aviators $250 for a 10-week session. And then, like a majestic airplane headed for the sky, the cost really goes up—flight school, Joseph reported, costs in the neighborhood of $10,000.

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