Before we can jump right into this story, there are a few things you must first know. Who knows what year it was? I certainly don’t! This guy named Eric Blanco decided he was going to move from Washington D.C. to Oklahoma so he could study at the University of Oklahoma (OU). The same college his army pilot dad, had attended. All the way over in California, this young lady named Erika Rybak also decided that she was going to move to Sooner Country, and attend OU. Perhaps this was fate. In November of 1994 we see for the first time, Mr. and Mrs. Eric Blanco. At some point thereafter these two decided they simply must have their Private Pilot License (PPL) and so this is the journey they set themselves upon. In May of 1998, Erika Blanco earned her PPL. Three weeks to follow this great accomplishment, I was born. The joke following my birth was that I had already been through primary flight training. I was truly born to fly. If having a mother and grandfather pilot were not to set my destiny in stone, my father followed suit and earned his PPL in January of 1999. That sealed my fate.
There is not a lot to speak of for the early years of my life. During the first two years of my life, my parents continued to fly, and they would take my brother and I with them. I do not remember it, but I am sure it was a beautiful life to be living as a 2 year old.
Each year OU hosts a summer camp for kids, called Sooner Flight Academy. It teaches kids about flight, aircraft, the phonetic alphabet, basic aerodynamics, and brief history of it all. It is a wonderful Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program for kids aged 6-18. Back in 2004, however, you only had to be 5 years old. Having seen my older brother go for two years before me, I was super jealous! But in 2004 my time had come. There was one small problem with this though. When you turn seven, they take you flying in a Piper Warrior. In 2004, Jason was seven and got to go flying. Again, I was very jealous and could not wait until I was old enough. In 2006, I was finally able to fly.
I am pretty sure I will never forget that day. Sitting in the front seat ready for take-off, I was over the moon with excitement. To make things even better, my mom had come out to watch me fly! It is easy to recognize a nice landing because, first the stall horn will go off, and then you will not feel the aircraft kiss the pavement. You will simply hear the tires chirp. This is exactly how Mr. Zimmerman landed the Warrior that day. When we landed I ran over to my mom and I told her, as well as, Pilot Pam (the Camp Director and sweet family friend) that this is what I wanted for the rest of my life. I told them that I was going to grow up to be a pilot!
“You will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned to the sky; for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” –Leonardo Da Vinci
I didn’t know about this quote at the time, but how it was true for me, then and still today. In 2007, I got to go to camp yet again, and yet again after I went flying I was sure of what my future would hold. However, I was still just a little girl.
In 2007 my mother’s parents, Grandpa and Grandma Rybak, celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. They decided to celebrate by taking the entire family on an Alaskan cruise. The cruise was a lot of fun (learning how to make elephants out of towels, swimming in the pool on the deck of the boat, and concerts each night). But the best part was when my dad charted a flight in Juno. He took my brothers and me on a flying adventure in a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver. We landed on lake in the middle of nowhere. The pilot let us stand on the pontoons, and while there, we got to see a bear. This was the highlight of that trip, for me.
In 2010, my brother, Jason heard about this group called Civil Air Patrol (CAP). CAP is the United States Air Force Auxiliary and has three main missions: Aerospace Education, Emergency Services, and Cadet Programs. My brother joined Flying Castle Composite Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base. My dad joined in September of 2010, and I followed in May of 2011. My path to taking to the skies was starting to take shape.
In December 2011 I went to cadet encampment. The stress levels there literally made some people sick. Every girl in my flight was throwing up at some point. I also got an ear infection. It was a strange adventure, but one I learned a lot from. In order for a cadet to attend National Cadet Special Activities (NCSAs), they must first graduate from encampment. My dad and brother went as well. Jason was in a different basic flight, and my dad helped to oversee yet another basic flight. A basic flight is a group of twelve cadets that have never been to encampment before. My flight was the first female only flight in Kansas Wing Encampment history. As hard as it was, we also had tons of fun. It certainly helped me become the cadet that would be able to earn her PPL.
We got to shoot .22s on an indoor range, and then M16s on a simulated range. Some of us got to go on the KC-135 o-ride, and it refueled a B-2 in flight. Another group got to go on Blackhawk o-rides, and some got to do both.
This crazy camp afforded me the unique opportunity to attend many CAP NCSAs. Thousands of cadets apply to these camps every year, and there is a very competitive selection process.
My first NCSA was National Flight Academy- Gliders in 2012. Twelve cadets nationwide got accepted to this camp. There were eight guys, and four girls, including myself. I got to spend ten days in the Vermont Mountains learning how to fly gliders. It was an absolutely amazing experience, which I am sure I will never forget. My flight instructor happened to be the director of the camp, and we became fast friends. He was the first instructor to ever spin me. We were about to practice stalls, and a wing started to drop. He told me to step on the opposite rudder to straighten it out. I asked him “opposite of what?” and he responded with “opposite of this.” Then, he proceeded to step on the low wing side. Since then, I have not been super content with straight and level flight.
I reapplied for this camp in 2013, and got accepted. I was overjoyed to be returning to Vermont, and the purest form of flight. Again, only twelve cadets got in, but this year I was the only girl. Unfortunately, this time I had a different instructor.. We did not get along, from the get go. For whatever reason, I just rubbed him the wrong way. By the second day, I knew why. He gave guys preferential treatment, to the point where I was losing flight time because of it. He told me multiple times, daily, that I would never make it in aviation, let alone solo. Every time we got in the glider together, he would tell me what a horrible student I was, and that I would never become a pilot. This only made me more determined to do so. Three days before the camp ended, he got a call from his job and had to leave. I was then placed with the nicest guy there. After one day of flying with the new instructor, I was ready to solo. On the last night before graduation, I took to the skies. I slipped the surly bonds of earth, and became a solo pilot. Over the moon excited, cannot even begin to describe how happy I was.
The next year (2014), I was asked to attend National Flight Academy-Powered in Durant, Ok. They wanted me to head up Public Affairs on the cadet staff. The cadets that were attending this camp, had no previous experience around airplanes so, I also got to help out here and there with pre-flights, and some basic ground school questions. While I was there, the wing commander came to visit in his Navion. It is a beautiful airplane. He offered to take all of the cadet staff for a ride. Of course, I said yes!! We had an amazing time, and it only fueled my desire to fly.
In 2015, I did not apply to a single NCSA. I was ready for a break. My two younger brothers; , however, applied and got accepted for National Flight Academy- Model Airplanes, Remote Controlled (MARC). Also, my parents became the directors for hosting International Air Cadet Exchange- Oklahoma (IACE). While they were preparing for this, I had my sights set on the sky. I received a grant from CAP, for flight training. In May, I started my powered flight training. I fell more madly in love with aviation on a daily basis. Somewhere in there, the director of my brothers’ camp, found out about their older sister. He sent me an email, asking me to come be the Cadet Commander for MARC NCSA. Without realizing what I was getting into, I agreed. My parents also asked me to be the Oklahoma Wing Cadet Liaison Officer for IACE. I also agreed to this. I went to the MARC camp, and had twenty guys under my command, and zero girls. It simply further proved what how male dominated the field of aviation is. For IACE, we hosted six male cadets from three different countries.
While learning valuable leadership lessons at these NCSAs, my flight training continued. On Monday, July 13th, 2015 I completed my initial powered solo. This was just a few days before the IACE cadets arrived. While they were in town, I would sneak away as often as possible to go fly.
11/13/15 was a Friday. It was easily the longest and hardest day I had on the road to getting my private pilot license (PPL). When you want to accomplish something great, it is not going to be easy. Greatness does not come from mediocrity, and accomplishment does not come without hard work. Never has this been truer than Friday November 13th, 2015. I was supposed to take my practical for my PPL that day, and it did not happen. It got changed to Sunday the 15th. For so many different reasons, I went home that night an absolute broken hearted mess.
The next day, I was not feeling much better about things. My dad encouraged me to go fly a cross country. So, I went from Shawnee to Tulsa because, a B-17 was going to be in town. I landed just as the B-17 was taxiing to depart and got the most amazing view of it! My flights on that day were so beyond awesome, and suddenly ever doubt, fear, and frustration was gone. I fell in love with aviation all over again.
The next day, I got up ready to conquer the world. I drove out to the airport and did my practical. I took off as a student pilot, and landed as a private pilot. So far, that is my greatest accomplishment. It is what I am most proud of this far in my life.
Since I got my PPL, I have been met with all sorts of opposition. The most common theme being, women have no place in aviation. While I hear this more often than I would like, I am surrounded my encouraging and supporting people even more so. I have been so beyond blessed to find a wonderful group of guys to fly with here in the Tulsa area. We get together and nerd out about all things aviation, and I absolutely love it. The nearly two years I’ve had my PPL, have easily been the best two years of my life. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Every time I go flying, my heart turns over itself in excitement. No morning is ever too early when airplanes are involved. No day is too long when you get to fly. The pure joy that flying brings me, every single time, is worth all of the hard times ten thousand times over. There is nothing I can dream up that I would rather do fly. I am honored to be a third generation pilot, and so excited to see what my future in aviation holds.
If you get nothing else from this, please just understand these few things. Anything great that you dare to accomplish is going to come at a cost. The question is,- how much are you willing to pay. Nothing amazing is going to come easy. So, how hard are you willing to work for it? Lastly, nothing you do will please everybody. Who are you going to listen to?
“Dream big, and when you get there: dare to dream even bigger!” –unknown
Whether you become a pilot or not, you are capable of so much more than you think. Never give up on your dreams. Hold your head high, and press on. You got this!