By Kim Stevens
After experiencing an incredible journey in aviation, Stacy Howard ended an accomplished career recently, stepping down from her role with the National Business Aircraft Association (NBAA) as the Western Regional Representative, having worked in that position for more than six years. From her fear of flying at an early age, to crafting a career that included important milestones with the 99s, aviation insurance, AOPA and most recently NBAA, I asked her if she had ever imagined that aviation would take her where it has.
“The short answer is no,” said Howard. “In the early days, when I first learned to fly, I was like a kid living in a fairy tale.” Falcon Field [Mesa, AZ] was a magic kingdom in those days, and Howard said she was surrounded by fascinating creatures, with powerful warrior names like Thunderbolt, Mustang, Liberator, and Spitfire; playful critters called Cubs and Ercoupes; and vigorous workhorses called Flying Fortresses, Caravans, and Constellations. “I couldn’t get enough flying stories from all those pilots I met in the airport restaurant and on the shady steps of the airport terminal,” said Howard. “They were all men, of course, and they seemed sage and courageous, and I learned something about flight from every story.” Howard said some were funny, others were inspiring, and others were tragic. But for Howard, there was a lesson learned in every tale. Howard didn’t know it at the time, but she was also creating her own stories with every flight she took, and it wasn’t until she joined the 99s, and met other women pilots, that she realized that she too, had something to offer.
The first time she realized she could make a difference was when she organized a Flying Companion Seminar for the 99s. “No one in our chapter had ever done it before,” said Howard. Armed with a paperback book written by the Orange County 99s, and organizational training she had received as a Girl Scout Leader, she started making phone calls to line up speakers and resources. “I worried about meeting everyone’s expectations as the room filled with wives and girlfriends of local pilots,” said Howard. Presenters took their turn at the podium to explain aerodynamics, chart reading, and survival skills, and each student took their turn on the flight simulator. As the day progressed, Howard said she could see fear and apathy morph into confidence and curiosity in the faces of those women. “It was magical.”
Later, and even more motivational, was when Howard helped organize practice meets for the National Intercollegiate Flying Association (NIFA). College students from around the state [Arizona] flew into Deer Valley Airport to get ready for their regional intercollegiate competition. “At that moment, I realized I had become a mentor, and more than ever, I wanted to give those eager young pilots something that would last,” said Howard.
Even with those early accomplishments, it was a life altering event that led her to a career in aviation. “Making a living in aviation did not occur to me until I suddenly became a widow,” said Howard. At the time she had no degree to fall back on. “All I had was my flying community,” recalled Howard. Pat Costello, Howard’s aviation insurance agent, then took a chance on her. He needed an outside sales agent, and he thought it would be easier to teach her insurance than to teach some insurance agent
about aviation. “If you want to learn about aviation, insurance is an amazing teacher,” said Howard. “You gain a whole new perspective when you look at it through the lens of risk management.” Howard’s new job exposed her to every facet of the industry – individual ownership, flight training, aircraft repair and manufacturing, commercial air service, airport operations, and regulatory compliance. “All of it.”
This experience led Howard to a new role with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA). Working in the area of government relations and association advocacy, she worked at AOPA as a regional representative from 1995 until 2012, responsible for extending the reach of the Association into state and local public policy environment in Arizona, Nevada and Utah.
Howard said she was hired as a Regional Representative for two reasons. “I had an airplane and an aviation network that extended into five western states, and I was a woman.” Howard said AOPA looked at their male dominated member base at the time and realized there might be an untapped market. “They wanted to be more female friendly,” said Howard. “I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time with right the credentials.”
As Howard began to grow her network and create opportunities to influence outcomes on the political front, it didn’t take her long to realize that a pilot’s best friend is his or her state aviation official. “They, more than anyone, recognize the importance of having a system of airports,” said Howard. “Airports are where pilots are born, and where we live. Without airports, we will cease to exist.” Howard compared it to the loss of forests and jungles leading to the disappearance of diverse lifeforms – “the loss of a community airport diminishes our habitat, and with it we lose our history, our culture, and our unique diversity.”
Howard said through the advocacy work that began in the classroom, she attempted to perfect while working for NBAA, whose resources enabled her to expand her network exponentially. “By representing companies as well as individuals, I was better able to help political leaders view the industry in economic terms, a language they respect,” said Howard. “Business aviation drives aviation business. It ensures downtown, suburban and rural airports thrive financially, and elected officials love publicly owned assets that add to the community tax base.”
When asked whether the pure joy of flying can get lost when advocating for aviation, or whether it’s that joy and passion that drives the fight, Howard admitted to both. “There were days when I felt discouraged by the jealousy, fear and even anger that the non-flying public exhibits toward pilots and airplanes,” related Howard, “and I am occasionally troubled by the greed or carelessness with which a few public officials and aviation professionals operate, but that feeling always passes, and there remains within me the sweet desire to experience flight again, and to help preserve that privilege for those who come after me.”
From a kid living a fairy tale to knowing what it feels like to be a mentor, Howard has thought about today’s youth. While she was working with teen aged girls at their 99s Discover Aviation Camp for Girl Scouts, she soon realized that these girls were not yet interested in aviation history. “Few of them wanted to see and touch antique airplanes, or hear about the difficulties early pilots faced, Howard said. “They took the miracle and privilege of flight as a matter of fact, and simply wanted to sample it, to see if it had any relevance or role in their own lives.” But as the week went on, and they traveled to the airport again and again, sat in aircraft on the ramp, flew state-of-the-art simulators, visited wind tunnels and walked among the wreckage at Embry Riddle’s accident investigation lab, Howard said their anticipation grew. And by the end of the week, when they emerged from the aircraft after their first flight, there was vivid excitement in their eyes and voices, and everyone knew they had formed a new and meaningful bond with one another. “They would never again take flying for granted,” exclaimed Howard.
“The wisdom I would share is this – Never forget the joy of your first success, your first solo, or the day you mastered one of the most complex skills in the world and became a pilot; and as you move forward into your careers and avocations, remember to reach back and share that joy with the others who stand in line behind you, looking up.”
As Howard enters a new season in her life, she will continue to fly some. “My husband and I hangar a Bonanza and a Citabria at Falcon Field in Mesa, and all of our close friends are aviators.” When asked if she will stay engaged locally, she replied, “Perhaps, but at a much more leisurely pace.”