WOMEN WITH WINGS: Aviators in Destin mark 100 years in women's flight history


July 30--Christa Strang and Buffy Stevenson might seem like your average working wives and mothers, but when these two women take off for a day on the job, they use the runway at the Destin Airport.

"The sky is my office," said Stevenson, a pilot tour guide for Panhandle Helicopter.

One hundred years ago on Aug. 1, Harriet Quimby became the first woman in the United States to receive her pilot's license, forging the way for other female pilots like Amelia Earhart and Sally Ride, the first woman to enter space.

"They opened the doors for women who want to make flying a profession or a hobby," Strang told The Log. "Even as I was growing up, it was a very male-dominated field and it still is."

Growing up to become an airplane pilot seemed like nothing more than a dream for the Crestview resident.

"I had to pay for college myself, so I always thought I would end up doing something else," said Strang.

While studying pre-law at college in Long Beach, Calif., a few friends bought her an introductory flight as a present.

"That was all it took," she said.

At 18 years old, Strang set out to earn her wings, flying whenever she could afford it. After four years, she received her private pilot's license and moved to Destin to become the first female flight instructor at Miracle Strip Aviation. Later, she also became the first female chief flight instructor at the Peter Prince Airport in Milton, Fla., before working as a first officer for Regional Jets.

While working for the airlines, "you're stuck wearing a man's uniform with the tie and the hat and the jacket. You kind of feel like you're being put into a mold that's made for men," she said.

Before starting her own flight management and pilot services company, Centerline Flight Services, Strang also worked for the Sterling Companies as head of the flight department where she flew a Beechjet 400 and a King Air 90.

Nowadays, the entrepreneur and mother of twin 3-year-old girls, flies a Piper Meridian for her client, Allied Global Ventures LLC.

Whether you're a man or a woman, "becoming a pilot is definitely a fulfilling and rewarding endeavor," Strang said. "It's amazingly beautiful up there and it's always a challenge."

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Buffy Stevenson, a grandmother and the owner of HeliGirl Aviation, had been working in the hospitality industry for 25 years when she decided it was time for a career change.

"It wasn't like I set out to be a helicopter pilot. It was just one of those things I fell into," said the Panama City Beach resident. "I've always been fascinated with flying. When I was younger, my dad got his private pilot's license and took me up for the first time in a Cessna."

The experience stuck with her into adulthood. After researching the aviation industry, Stevenson took her first demo flight in a helicopter in 2008 and was "totally hooked."

"I just knew right when I went up for that flight that's what I was going to do," she said.

Although her mother was a little nervous and scared, Stevenson began her pilot training at Airwork LLC in Las Vegas. Less than two years later, she earned her rotorcraft rating among various other certifications and moved to Destin.

Flying Helicopter tours with Panhandle Helicopter is her first break into the aviation industry.

While in the air over the Emerald Coast, "everyone is in a great mood and having fun. I fly tours up and down the beach. I can't really get people to feel for sorry me," she said.

Stevenson is among a very small percentage of female helicopter pilots that earned their ratings in the civilian world as opposed to the military.

"At times it can be a little bit challenging because you do feel that certain point where you have to prove yourself a little bit more because you are woman," she said. "But for someone like me to spend all that money and all that time, that's when you know it's truly your passion."