Shelbe Jarrett - 2023 PYOA Grand Prize Winner Story


By: Shelbe Jarrett

What if? Two impactful words that held me in their powerful grip for a long time. As an adolescent growing up, I had no idea what I wanted to be in life. Sure, I had fantasies about becoming a doctor or a lawyer, but realistically, I had no idea. What kid does at the ripe age of 17? A few things I did know; I loved being at the airport, and I loved helping people.

As I neared the age of flying the nest, I could sense my parents’ fear that I would never find an interest to pursue after graduating. I recall one conversation that would live in my head for years to come; my family and I were boarding an airplane that would take us on our vacation, and I tried to control my gawking as I boarded the aircraft and stole a quick peek inside the cockpit. Once we took our designated seats, I raved to my mom how incredible airplanes are. So large and heavy, yet able to defy gravity, the very thing that tethers us all to the surface.

My mom responded, “Why don’t you be a pilot then?” My response: “I could never do that; what if something bad happens?” My mom laughed and said, “What if you get in a car accident? You’re more likely to get in one of those, and you sure didn’t have a problem wanting to learn how to drive.”

For years to come, my family would poke fun at me for my usual retort of what if? The conversation was dropped, and I decided to pursue being a geriatric psychiatrist instead.

It wasn’t until college that I realized life is entirely too short to worry about the what ifs. One semester of bio microorganisms and calculus was all it took for me to realize I needed to take another look at my future. As fate would have it, the university I attended also happened to have a flight school. For the first time, I decided to throw the what ifs to the wind and take a leap of faith. As it turns out, it was the best decision I could’ve ever made.

Shelbe Jarrett - 2023 PYOA contest winner

While I still don’t know where life will take me, I have had incredible opportunities to make priceless memories in my short aviation career. In August 2018, I circled the Statue of Liberty and traversed the Hudson River, taking in the most spectacular view one can get of New York City. That same year, I flew down to Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, and visited the very place where the Wright brothers made history with their maiden voyage. Later that year, I checked off spin training in an Extra 300 and got to experience the thrill of aerobatics for the first time.

Perhaps one of my biggest highlights to date is becoming a CFI. Finally, I got to meld the love of helping others and my love of flying by sharing with students the joy that is aviation. It was around this time that COVID-19 impacted the world in an unprecedented way, and one can imagine the number of what ifs that accompanied it for everyone. For me, this opened a brand-new chapter of my life.

I decided that there would be no better time to create lemonade from lemons, and packed up my belongings and moved across the country from Delaware to the plains of South Dakota. It was here where I was introduced to a whole new side of aviation. My passion for instructing grew, and I relished the moments of building a strong foundation for future generations of aviators. There was no comparison to the feeling of taking someone flying in a small aircraft for the first time, seeing the smile and adrenaline pumping through them. Or taking a student in actual IMC for the first time and witnessing the amazement that is instrument flying.

Shelbe Jarrett - 2023 PYOA Grand Prize Winner Story

South Dakota afforded me numerous priceless opportunities (and not just by forcing me to perfect my crosswind landings). My first flight in a glider was one of pure fascination. When I showed up to the lesson with my headset, Gray (the pilot) chuckled and informed me that it was certainly not needed. The quietness of the cockpit was surreal, the only noise coming from the wind whipping past the sleek fuselage and my instructor speaking to me. Soaring is something captivating, a venture I hope to continue pursuing in the near future.

I eventually got the opportunity to compete in the 2022 Women’s Air Race Classic (ARC), hosted by The Ninety-Nines. This was one of the most rewarding, challenging, and resilient memories of flying I have to date. The ARC is something I have always dreamed of partaking in, and I knew the experience was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The what ifs relentlessly hounded me. What if we’re not able to complete the race? What if the aircraft can’t take that kind of stress? What if my partner and I aren’t compatible, seeing as we’ve never met in person and this race will stretch across thousands of nautical miles and several days?

Shelbe Jarrett - 2023 PYOA Grand Prize Winner Story

Deciding to do the air race was life-changing. The flying was unlike anything I’ve ever done before. The aviators I met and the camaraderie experienced were refreshing and inspiring. The challenge of flying more than 3,500 nautical miles (the route itself was 2,100 nautical miles, and flying to the start in Florida from Colorado was another 1,500 nautical miles) was humbling, thrilling, informative, and hot!

Looking back, I can say that aviation has changed my life in a myriad of ways and afforded me opportunities that otherwise would have remained out of reach. But really, what changed my life was learning how to overcome the what ifs, live life to the fullest, and grab every opportunity with eager hands and don’t let go.

If there’s one thing to take away from this story, it’s to not let the what ifs clip your wings.

Shelbe Jarrett - 2023 PYOA Grand Prize Winner Story

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