Working as a special education specialist in the early 1990s with 3rd, 4th and 5th graders in Mora, Minnesota, Judy Rice found herself searching for classroom materials on aviation that she could use in her classroom. Her students discovered that Judy was learning to fly and would do anything she asked, if she talked about flying. During that same time, Judy’s son was also learning to fly. Keeping her son interested in his dream to become a pilot, and noticing the power that aviation held on some of the toughest students in her class, made Judy realize that she was on to something. However, her research had led to very little classroom friendly materials for teachers and students. “I knew I had to do something,” said Rice.
It was through her research for good aviation related materials that led her to NCAE, now the National Coalition for Aviation and Space Education (NCASE). “I wanted to witness firsthand what it was all about and what they had to offer in regard to aviation education,” said Rice. Motivated, she saved up enough for a flight across the country. “The meeting I attended exceeded my expectations and at the same time I met a lifetime of colleagues and friends.” From that first meeting, NCASE has been by her side throughout all of her aviation education endeavors.
This month, after spending five years as the NCASE President, Ms. Rice has stepped down from the position to concentrate on her flight instructing career in Florida. She will continue, however, to be a cheerleader for the organization. “As I grew in my career from classroom teacher to aviation educator, I also grew with NCASE,” said Rice. “It was an honor to volunteer my time when asked to join the board, then vice president, and with shaky knees as President.” Rice said it was through Ken Cook’s mentoring during her vice presidency that she accepted the honorable position as President. “He’s always been there for me and NCASE,” said Rice. “He’s an amazing person and colleague.”
Judy grew up as the middle child of six in Ohio. She recalls her first encounter with aviation was during a hot summer evening when she was about 5 years old. She was lying in her bed which was always up against the window so she could say goodnight to the sky. With the shadows lengthening due to the setting sun she began to doze off. Suddenly, she heard a loud whoosh – whoosh – whoosh! “I fled from my bed and ran down the stairs as fast I my tiny legs would carry me,” said Rice. “Once outside I looked up and saw a huge balloon with a wicker basket hanging below.” She could see the man in the basket as it passed just over her rooftop. The man hollered down, “What’s wrong little girl, cat got your tongue?”
Rice said she was so amazed she couldn’t speak. “It was as though he was standing right beside me!”
The house that Judy grew up in had a huge living room with bookshelves along one wall. After that evening’s experience with the hot air balloon, she would park herself in the corner each day paging through the encyclopedia looking for the balloon and basket contraption. “To my delight, as I searched, I found all sorts of flying machines,” said Rice. “Once I found a lady standing on top of the wing of a small airplane and I remember saying to myself, ‘Someday, someday I will do that!’”
In 1st grade Judy discovered that she was the only one in her class that dreamt about flying. One day her teacher smiled and nodded, telling her, “Honey, you are a girl. Good girls do not fly.” Horrified, she ran home and asked her parents if this was true. “My parents reassured me that in fact, good girls do not fly,” said Rice. “Crushed, I decided to keep my dream all to myself. Instead, I was encouraged to be a good girl, raise a family and have a respectful profession for a lady, like a teacher.”
Judy did become a teacher and thought she had kept her dream to fly a secret until as a mom, her 9-year-old son asked her one day why she never learned to fly. “I was astounded not realizing I had shared my hidden dream with him,” said Rice. “He then proceeded to tell me that he wanted to learn how to fly. For his 10th Birthday, I surprised him with an introductory flight lesson and he in turn surprised me with a flight lesson! That was it, I was hooked.”
Rice began taking flight lessons on weekends while teaching and being a mom. She found it to be extremely difficult. “I have always had to squeeze flying into life, which is always more challenging,” said Rice. “I have also always had issues with math – still do.” Rice says it takes her twice as long as others to earn any certificate or rating. “I tell students, if I can do it, so can you! Do not compare yourself to others. So what if it takes you longer. Most importantly, focus, do the work, and don’t give up.”
Rice said it took a lot of work gaining the confidence that she could fly. After all, she had been told all her life that it wasn’t for her. “Flying gave me confidence, changing my life forever more,” said Rice. “Once I learned to fly, my life changed even more after noticing the power of aviation with my special education students.”
Today, flying and sharing the experience of flight with others is what motivates Rice each day. “I have no less than 20 students a day, some from the USA, and many from over 21 different countries,” said Rice. “I bring my world flight experience and knowledge as a flight instructor to each new student.” Most students are not much older than 20, far from home and first time away from home. “I am their first contact and many times also become mom.”
Seeing a student’s eyes light up as they understand a concept or gain confidence, and watching them grow as a person and a pilot is gratifying for Rice. No matter where in the world a student pilot may be from, Rice believes we all share the passion of the air. “It doesn’t matter the type of vehicle (fixed wing, helicopter, glider, etc.); it doesn’t matter what the country’s politics are, or the local language – as soon as you arrive in a flying machine you are family,” said Rice. “Even in the harshest countries, aviation is an international shared joy.”
In 2015 Rice flew around the world to promote the importance of S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) Education and the boundless opportunities in aviation and aerospace industries worldwide. This international in-flight effort labeled ThinkGlobalFlight, cultivated, promoted, and inspired a greater awareness and interest in S.T.E.A.M. for students by way of an around-the-world flight of adventure. “It took 10 years of planning and was worth every moment,” said Rice.
When asked about her mentors, Rice, without a blink, named Fred Nauer, Ken Cook, Lee Siudzinski, and Dick Rutan. “These great people came into my life when I began this new dream of aviation education,” said Rice. “In part, I am who I am because of these four gentlemen.”
Rice hopes to visit and fly in Africa, one of the few remaining countries that has always held a fascination for her since she was very young, and when she’s not in the air or thinking about it, she also enjoys gardening and scuba diving.
“I believe everything happens for a reason,” said Rice. “I have experienced an amazing life through a lot of hard work.” Rice says she jumps out of bed each day, eager to share what an amazing life is ahead for everyone, regardless of age, if we just focus and work toward our dreams. “Dreams grow – As mine.”