MARLO THOMAS
07/16/2014 11:13 am ET Updated Jul 22, 2014

This Woman Went From Being Too Scared To Fly – To Flying Commercial Planes For A Living!

marlo thomas"One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us—that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story, an excerpt from my new book “It Ain't Over Till It's Over,” ,” is about Adria Drew, a woman who was so scared about boarding a tiny prop plane that she thought about not getting on the flight. Today, she flies commercial planes for a living.” —Marlo, MarloThomas.com

Adria Drew was not boarding that plane. Not a little puddle jumper with peeling paint and propellers that almost made it look like a toy. She had never seen a prop plane up close, let alone ridden on one. No way, she said to herself.

Hysterical, she called her boyfriend, Larry, back in New York to tell him she was terrified of the plane and was going to rent a car and drive from Los Angeles to Palm Springs instead. He failed to calm her down. Less than an hour later, she called him again, this time telling him something so outrageous he hung up on her.

At the time, Adria was in her mid-twenties and worked for MCI, a telecommunications company. She began her career there as a secretary, but a colleague who recognized her people skills suggested she go for a job in sales. So she approached the sales manager in Westchester County, New York, where she lived. He refused to hire her on the grounds that she had no track record.

For Adria, the word “no” fell on deaf ears.

“I always say, if anyone tells you that you can’t do something, don’t listen,” Adria says. Rather than retreating to her secretarial desk, she forged ahead and asked the sales manager in New York City, a vastly larger market, to give her a shot.

Bull’s-eye!

For the next 11 years, Adria had one goal in mind: Show the cynic in Westchester he’d made a mistake and that she had the right stuff. And she did— successfully convincing many companies, including the New York Times Company, to switch their long-distance service and rising to become one of MCI’s top sales representatives. Selling voice and data services to other large companies proved to be lucrative and she won awards, often—and most satisfyingly—presented in front of the manager who wouldn’t give her a chance.

Then she won a visit to Palm Springs, the trip that would change her life.

The flight from New York to Los Angeles’s LAX was on a large commercial jet, not a white-knuckle affair. At LAX, Adria boarded a bus that took her across the airfield for the short flight to Palm Springs. That’s when the panic set in.

“An older man saw how nervous I was,” she recalls. “He told me he took the flight all the time and that if I sat behind the pilots, I could see what they were doing and I’d probably feel more comfortable.” That lifted Adria’s anxiety, and she stepped onto the puddle jumper.

This was in the days before 9/11. The plane, a Beech 1900 twin-engine turbo prop, had no cockpit door, only a curtain separating the pilots from the passengers. The curtain was left open.

“The next thing I know we’re going down the runway and taking off,” says Adria. “I’m looking out the front window, which is completely different from looking out the side. The sky was gorgeous, with mountains all around us—it was so dramatic. I had never experienced such exhilaration before.”

Landing 45 minutes later, she called Larry and told him she was going to learn how to fly. That’s when he questioned her sanity and hung up on her.

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Adria Drew

Months went by, and Adria continued to muse about getting her pilot’s license. Then her beloved father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In six weeks, he was dead. He was only 65.

You never know how much time you’ve got, she thought. I’m really going to do it—I’m going to learn how to fly.
Adria was doing well enough at MCI to be able to afford two flight lessons per month. Soon she married Larry, quit MCI, and began to work for her husband’s hair products business as a sales rep.

Then an old pilot friend pushed her to apply for a job at a major airline. By now she was the mother of two young boys and thought being a pilot for a charter airline would have more flexibility, so she was hired at a charter and took to the skies. Three years later the same pilot friend again urged her to try for a major airline.

“If you don’t ask, you don’t even give yourself a chance,” she says.

Adria asked, and two months later was in an intensive eight-week training course in Dallas, working in a simulator and rooming with a 23-year-old candidate.

“I became a commercial airline pilot when I was 44,” says Adria. A captain she worked with nicknamed her “Grandma.”
When she started flying commercially, it was “an out-of-body experience,” she marvels. “I can still remember when I got my first uniform—the stripes on the sleeves, the hat, the whole outfit.”

Not much rattles Adria, the sort of temperament one wants in a pilot. A month or so into active training she was the copilot on a flight out of Charlotte, North Carolina, where there were maintenance issues. After a three-hour delay they took off for New York’s LaGuardia Airport, where they encountered bad weather and were ordered into a holding pattern.

Finally, the pilots had to make a decision about landing at an alternate airport. They radioed air traffic controllers about trying for Kennedy, but that was a no-go, too.

“The captain was phenomenal and let me be part of the decision,” Adria says. “We concluded Boston was our best bet, far enough east to beat the bad weather. We made an announcement about the diversion. And all of a sudden, the flight attendant dings us. We had a medical emergency in back.”

A passenger, perhaps distressed by the scary weather, couldn’t breathe and had to be put on oxygen. To make matters worse, the Boston air traffic controllers informed the pilots they couldn’t handle any more incoming flights. Fuel was getting low. Finally, they landed at Bradley International Airport, near Hartford, Connecticut, in the middle of a blizzard. The passengers and crew ended up at a hotel, which soon lost power.

Characteristically, Adria rolled with it. “You can’t sit there saying, ‘Oh my God.’ There’s no room for that. You just have to stay focused and do what you have to do to get your job done. That’s something that’s either in your blood or it isn’t.”

She reports that her boys have been exposed to her piloting so frequently, they think nothing of it— until they see their friends’ reactions: Wow! Your mom’s an airline pilot?

“Based on outside feedback,” Adria says, “it made them realize their mom is kind of cool.”

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To find out more about Adria's Journey -- and to read 59 other inspiring stories -- buy your copy of "It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over." Click here.

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