When I was little, I always wanted to grow up and be a performer. This was manifested through the shows my siblings and I put on for our parents. I also remember discovering the full script for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera at the library one summer. That afternoon, with the soundtrack blaring through my boombox, I acted out the entire play… in my bedroom… by myself.
And I think that’s the girl most people knew me as. I sang at church, I played the harp and violin in orchestra, and I performed in my sister’s drama productions. That was the girl I knew.
So “Shannon VanZegeren, private pilot,” wasn’t exactly a life achievement anyone saw coming, myself included. And yet, on December 11, 2020, I officially passed the FAA private pilot checkride. I am a pilot.
Let me give you some context. I started teaching at the West Michigan Aviation Academy in Fall 2016. With degrees in Social Studies and English, I was hired to teach an introductory aviation course called Aviation History & Literature (AHL). When I was offered the job, it seemed kind of random. My aviation knowledge at that point was basically, “um, I know who Amelia Earhart is.”
But I was excited. Aviation seemed cool and I dove in. What I discovered was the romanticism of flying. The fact that humans have partaken in the defiance of gravity is unbelievable. I met a community of aviators who just loved flying for the sake of its beauty. It was impossible not to fall head over heels into the wonder and mystery and art of aviation.
As I expressed interest for further learning, an opportunity presented itself. Would I like to train to be a private pilot? I remember asking my husband what he thought about it. He said, “How many people in their lives get an opportunity like this one?” He pushed me to go for it.
There wasn’t much thinking that went into my decision. I said yes without really knowing what I was getting myself into. In that moment, if I had known how hard the journey was going to be, I honestly think I would’ve turned it down, only because I would not have believed I had it in me. There was no way to comprehend just how difficult it was going to be to scale this mountain. Let me tell you, flying an airplane is absolutely the hardest thing I have ever done.
In the thick of it, I had a lot of doubts. It almost felt like an identity crisis: What am I doing? Who am I trying to be? I’m a creative-musician-type. This is so, “not me.”
Ahead of every milestone, the task seemed impossible: Flying my first solo, passing the written exam, flying my first solo cross country, learning performance takeoffs and landings, turning stalls, and most terrifying… the oral exam (where I'd have to explain things like the electrical system) and practical test with an FAA examiner! Each one of those accomplishments, at one point, felt like there was no way I could ever do it.
And yet, little by little, slowly but surely, I started scaling the mountain. I soloed on Saturday, March 14, 2020. I passed my written exam with a 75%. I flew my first solo cross country to Owosso Community Airport. I learned how to do performance takeoffs and landings. I passed my FAA checkride on December 11, 2020 after earning a disapproval on December 9, 2020. Turning stalls still scare me.
My FAA checkride story probably deserves another blog on another day. I did not pass on my first try. I shed some tears over it, but in the end, I believe I’m a better pilot because of what happened.
In the past 24 hours of earning my wings, the most frequent question I’ve been asked is “how do you feel?” My honest answer is “exhausted.” But in 24 hours of reflecting on it, this is what I think: we are all capable of so much more than we ever realize. As inadequate as I felt along the way, and maybe still do to a certain extent, somehow I did it. It was by taking one small step at a time. Often I found myself saying, don’t focus on the mountain, focus on the immediate next step that needs to be taken.
And the work pays off. I cannot explain how it feels to put your heels on the floor, push full throttle in, roll down the runway, and let the airplane carry you into blue skies with no one in the right seat. It is magic.
I am grateful for the community of aviators who surrounded me and saw me through this journey. I couldn’t have done it without them. I’ve been told many times that a private pilot’s certificate is a “license to learn.” I’m looking forward to seeing what lessons are still at hand. I don’t know exactly what’s ahead for me as a pilot, but I look forward to continuing to challenge myself and hopefully inspire other young women to fly. If I can do this, they can do this, too.
I see flying as a gift God gave me. He chose to weave it into my story when I least expected it. I’m still the singer-songwriter-musician type, but now I’m a pilot, too. And I think it's pretty cool that I can be both.