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Special Edition

Editor Note: I've mentioned before that I'm trying to develop this platform from a pet project to something everyone can find some value in. In a departure from the standard newsletter format, I'm bringing in Lindsey Ripa to guest post as the first post on this new site. Her story (first XC Mag published a few days ago) is an inspiring read about the Ladies-only Fly-In she hosted this past September.

As I develop this, I hope to begin posting more and bring in additional contributors who would like to share their stories! Fear not, you will continue to receive the usual The Morning Cook newsletter every two weeks!

 

Lady Birds Soar Monroe

Central Utah hosts a ladies-only fly-in

Written by Lindsey Ripa

The forecast looks promising. Our favorite weather model is predicting consistent lift to 14,000 feet and light winds all evening. The red-tailed hawks are marking the thermals, giving us a colorful silhouette to follow in the golden light. A massive stone façade stands as an impressive backdrop, looming over fluttering aspen trees, evergreens, juniper, and sage. Tonight, the high western desert is granting us a true glass off, but tonight is extra special. There are 30 women on launch, and they are eager to sky out.



For the past three years, I have thrown some form of a women’s fly-in. The first two iterations were in celebration of women in free flight, and I invited men to join in on the festivities. These events were a great time, but as they grew, I felt like I was moving away from my original intention which was to focus on female energy and provide a space for women to learn from each other. This last fly-in, I decided to make the event ladies-only and see what happened.


Before I get into the event, I want to address a question you might have which is: What is the point of a women’s fly-in? The point is not to segregate women from men or aimlessly gender a sport in which women can perform equally. My goal is always to provide an arena where women feel comfortable to push themselves, voice their vulnerabilities, share their wisdom, and for the less experienced pilots, see examples of women performing at the level they aspire to reach. This is not to say that I am not inspired by my male peers – I definitely am! However, there is something special in seeing another woman fly at the same level as men. It helps erase a lifetime of social conditioning that we are “less than."


Now let’s paint the picture. The four-day event was located in Monroe, Utah, home to the tallest insured site in the USA. In the mornings, we typically fly from Monroe Peak which sits at 11,227 feet. In the evenings we fly a site called Cove which sits at about 8,700 feet. Situated in the central Utah high desert, our cloud base is typically 18,000 to 22,000 feet above sea level, and we fly over everything from forested mountain peaks to remote desert famous for hiding outlaws in the old western pioneer days. Butch Cassidy, the inspiration for the famous western movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” lived a stone’s throw away.



Over Labor Day weekend, women arrived in full force, ready to fly our big air and meet some new faces. For me, this was particularly exciting as I am the only local woman pilot in the valley. My house was headquarters for the event, and almost everyone slept on our beds, the couches, the floor, or in tents in the backyard. As the shuttle time would arrive, we would hop into burly pickup trucks and swap stories on the way to launch, weaving through fragrant evergreens and cinching down our hoods as the air grew crisper.


At the top of the peak, the views are expansive, and the streamers each morning indicated a light west wind – perfect. Despite the seasons just starting to change, midday flying here still has quite a bite, so the experienced ladies helped prepare the newer pilots and gave advice on the best path for a pleasant flight. One morning, as the first woman took off, a round of cheers and applause filled the air: “Yah, girl!” “Yes, queen!” “Great launch, you got this!” The pilot weight shifted in the early morning thermals and showed everyone that the day was turning on—we all hurried to assemble our kits while watching her red glider glint against the bluebird sky. Did I mention that our pilot was on her second flight after getting signed off by her instructor? One hour and a huge smile later, she landed blown away by both the scenery and the support.



As the thermals started lifting, I dug into a narrow core, feeling my wing pressurize and watching the ground fall away beneath me. High pitched hollers of joy mingled with the beeping of my vario, and I took a moment to appreciate a gaggle with so many women, most of whom were flying these sites for the first time. Some of us went on glide searching for more thermals on the next peak, some stayed in the thermal above launch admiring the views, and some pushed out for a scenic glory glide into the valley. It didn’t matter what anyone did, there was no pressure. The only metric that mattered was high smiles per hour. As it were, this fun and collaborative environment spurred personal bests across the board with longest cross country flights, first cross country flights, highest altitudes, and longest flight durations achieved.


When not flying, one could find us sprawled out under the shade of a Navajo willow tree, resting up for the evening session or retrieving ladies who had landed out somewhere in the valley. In the late evenings, we pulled up videos like Kinga Masztalerz’s “Girl Gone Wild” series and collectively gushed over how awesome it was to see an epic vol-biv done by a woman. One evening we had everyone pull up around the bonfire to socialize, make s’mores, and wind down under the sparkling stars of the Milky Way.

So how does all of this differ from any normal day up on the hill?


“For the first time, I didn’t feel the weight of having to represent all female pilots. With a launch full of women, I could simply be another pilot looking to have a fun day and work on my skills rather than make sure I put on a perfect performance to give my gender a good reputation. With this weight lifted and encouraging women all around, I enjoyed each flight and felt more comfortable trying new techniques.”


“Flying is such an incredible sport. This was my first fly in as well as my first ladies fly in, and I was blown away by the amazing women in this sport. They were so supportive and stoked that I was inspired to push my own limits without feeling pressured.”



If we have established that women are just as capable as men at free flight, where does this pressure arise from? We have to examine the environment that currently exists. First, and while this will not hold true for everyone, many of us grew up being conditioned to be cautious, proper, and dependent. Second, we are a minority in the sport, so there can be pressure to prove capability when we are perhaps the only female on launch.


Anecdotally, as a young child, I proudly told another student that my dream was to grow up to be president. He pointed to a poster of all of our historical presidents and informed me that girls were not allowed. You can’t fault a child for observing the evidence and coming to a certain conclusion, but I can fault adults who see women on launch and come to equally incorrect assumptions.



Everyone at the event, myself included, has dealt with our peers assuming that we are students, novice pilots, drivers, or simply someone’s spouse hanging around to take photos. We have had people single us out for targeted, and sometimes shoddy, advice not offered to other men. A quick caveat, we all love and seek advice, but there is a difference between offering and spraying.


Those of us with pilot partners have had other men shun us from cross-country plans while sharing freely with our partners. We tend to be told the site risks while our male peers are informed of thermal triggers. Sadly, some of us have been cheerfully welcomed into a group only to be ignored once romantic interests were quashed.


Finally, we hear constant comparisons of our genitalia to weakness. At my first SIV, I overheard an instructor on radio telling the student to “Throw it like a man,” and “Don’t be a (use your imagination).” If you find yourself thinking, “I would never!”, maybe dig deeper, because even I catch myself. I have joked about running from a nasty thermal like a scared little girl. I have assumed a woman pilot is a new pilot with no background knowledge. The point is, this can all be unlearned.


In the end, a more compassionate and inclusive approach to free flight benefits men as much as it does women. An empathetic, diverse support system can carry everyone safely through all stages of their pilot careers. So the solution? Treat us as equals, with respect, without assumption, and catch yourself or your friends whenever you find yourself participating in misogyny, even when unintentional.



To all the lady pilots out there, I hope you keep soaring high with a smile on your face, no matter where you are in your progression. Give yourself the same kindness that you give to others, and know that there is a growing network of women who are eager to mentor and learn from you. Free flight gives all of us something special, and it enables us to discover the raw parts of ourselves and grow as humans.


From one of the ladies: “As soon as my feet lift off the ground, I forget about all my insecurities; there’s no time for that. My mind goes into pilot mode and I’m off. This sport has been the most effective therapy for me. I’m constantly reminded that with enough time and patience, I can do anything I put my mind to.”


Those moments we cherish—the core of a thermal, the wisps of a cloud, the ding of an instrument as we make goal, the landing zone high fives, the dinner banter post-flight—they are best shared with everyone, and I will continue advocating for women until we get there.


I’ll end with the reminiscing of a friend, “I fly for peace of mind. For the moments of quiet focus that come with silently soaring above the ground. Nothing else matters except the feel of my wing and the wind on my face.”


I hope you all find your peace and freedom. Blue skies!









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