Flying high

Two Orange county women fly cross country this month

Author: Anita Manley
Posted: Friday, May 23, 2008

FROM  In addition to updates here at HVLife, you can learn more about the preparations for and the race itself at
Two Orange County women will begin the trip of a lifetime when they start the first leg of the Women’s Air Race Classic, a cross country flying marathon for women pilots from June 24-27.

Eileen Piasecki-Couch of Westtown and her co-pilot Gloria Smith of New Hampton will fly Eileen’s 1963 Mooney 20C 180 from Bozeman, Montana to Mansfield, Massachusetts, making eight stops along the way, a distance of 2,400 miles. Contest rules dictate that the women must fly visually (which means flying only during the day) and are scored by the time that they make for the four days of the race.

Smith and Couch met seven years ago through a mutual friend. Within a few years, the friendship took off, so to speak.

Couch began flying in 2001. “I had gone to the movies,” says the 53-year-old. “I saw ‘Pearl Harbor’ and loved the flying scenes. I said to my son ‘I’d love to take flying lessons.’ ‘Yeah sure’ he said.”

“It was all I could think about,” she adds. So she contacted the airport at Sussex, New Jersey and signed up with an independent instructor. “When I met him, we connected instantly, but he didn’t think I was serious. I was scared to death, but I was hooked. I was the first woman he taught and Gloria was the second.”

It took Couch 10 months and 125 flying hours to earn her license, although she points out that the national average is about 60 hours for private lessons. “I don’t know anyone who has earned their license in 60 hours,” she says.

Smith caught the flying bug five years ago. Her husband Alex Zawaski is a pilot, but the thought of flying herself had not crossed her mind until Couch persuaded her to take lessons.

“As you get older, the fear factor takes over your life,” says 60-year-old Smith. “You can fall and get hurt or you can fall and not get hurt. I love the challenge. You transcend yourself.”

Smith says it took her about a year to get her license, flying three times a week. “It’s a challenge,” she explains, “and it feels wonderful when you meet a challenge.”

Couch bought her first airplane for $32,000 even before she got her pilot’s license. “This man was selling it because he was getting married,” she says. “I fell in love with it.”

Her present plane, the 1963 Mooney 20C 180 cost $54,000. New planes run upwards of $500,000.

There’s no question that the current recession has hurt private pilots. “Normally, planes do not lose value,” Couch says, “but a recent investigation into refinancing has shown that in the last six months, piston engine airplanes have taken a nosedive. That’s the first time in 15 years! That tells you a little bit about the economy.”

Smith has a share in a Comanche 180 plane with her husband and Owen DeCambre, who is a franchisee with The Maids of Monroe and Chester. “It’s a beautiful plane that’s been entirely redone,” she adds.

The plane is kept at Orange County Airport. Smith and her husband fly often and have travelled to Alaska, the Bahamas, Siberia, Arctic Circle, Florida and British Columbia, among other worldwide destinations.

After a year’s delay, Smith and Couch decided 2008 was their year to enter the Air Race Classic. “The race is pretty well known to pilots in general, especially women,” Smith says. “Eileen and I had talked about it last year, but her son was graduating high school that weekend and we decided to do it the next year.”

The families’ reactions to this new adventure were mostly positive.

“My boys said ‘Mom’s doing what?’” laughs Couch, whose sons are ages 21, 18 and 14. “But my oldest boy thinks it’s cool.”

She adds that her husband, Troy, has been very supportive. “I would not have been able to get my first plane without him.”

Smith says her husband rolled his eyes when she told him about the race. “There’s not much he can say,” she says. “He’s flown around the world.”

Two women who aren't sitting still
When Couch isn’t flying her plane, she runs the Pine Island Herb and Spice Company

( She loves to cook, and 16 years ago started her own business in her home blending spices, soup mixes and pasta side dishes. She moved to her Pine Island location a year ago and now supplies local businesses including Jones Farm in Cornwall and Shop Rite stores. In her limited spare time, she is also a talented painter who can be found blending colors and creating beautiful paintings at the Wallkill River School in Walden.

Smith is the sole proprietor of a public relations and copywriting business. After working as a Madison Avenue copywriter “many moons ago,” she now handles public relations for the New York State Podiatric Medical Association and has contributed to The Aviator, published by the New Windsor Sentinel newspapers, as well as other Hudson Valley publications.

Smith is also an experienced equestrian who enjoys riding her horse, True Colors.

Her two sons, ages 25 and 30, have both served in Iraq. The oldest, Conroy, is in the Army and her son Dirk served as a Marine while she was learning to fly. “Whenever I was afraid to take things to the next level with flying,” she says, “I’d think about what he faced on a daily basis and so, in a way, he was an inspiration.”

As race day approaches, Smith is energized. “It’s exciting to be embarking on an adventure with a friend who is a mentor as well,” she explains. “We’ll be meeting some of the country’s top woman pilots and the course takes us along what we believe will be breathtaking countryside.
“From a pilot’s standpoint,” Smith continues, “this is an opportunity to hone skills on the radios, in flight planning (including weather) and with GPS technology.

“On a personal level,” she says, “it’s about meeting a challenge and, well, having fun along with way.”

Couch says the race is the most exciting experience she can do at this point in her life. “I love the planning, the research on how to fly a race, the anticipation of meeting many other women pilots, the rush that comes with flying and,” she adds, “I am doing it without any of the other men in my life. I’m doing it with a girlfriend! How cool is that?”

Anita Manley is a freelance writer living in Orange County.

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Reader Feedback
June 28, 2008 | 10:25 AM
I was a volunteer at the Frankfort,Ky. stop. These two ladies were really enjoying thier experiences with the race. They are and will be a wonderful,infectious influence on not only adults, but certainly on the young people that they reach!! Ken J.
KEN JORDAN Report as Spam
June 16, 2008 | 11:34 AM
What a great story. Helen & I will be so very pleased to meet these girls in Bozeman. ARC # 17
Marge Report as Spam
June 03, 2008 | 4:51 PM
These 2 women look like they are already having a great time. Just think of how much fun they will have on the flight. What a fun thing to do with a best buddy.
mumsdone Report as Spam
June 03, 2008 | 4:27 PM
These two women are an inspiration to everyone! Reading this article made me want to go out and get my pilots license too. It shows that if you want it bad enough there is no stopping you. Thanks for a great article.
Venessa Report as Spam
June 03, 2008 | 4:04 PM
Loved the story. It's great to read about two women who were adventurous enough to learn something so challenging and exciting. Proves there is definitely life after 50! It's never too late for all of us to learn something new. Debbie
Debbie Eichler Report as Spam
June 03, 2008 | 3:36 PM
Loved reading about other women's adventures. It's wonderful to see what we can accomplish if we set our minds to it. Great story. Thanks
Jane Report as Spam
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