BALTIMORE — Autumn Marlow, 17, never even boarded a plane before she took her place in the pilot’s seat of a four-seat, single-engine Cessna 172 and flew over the Chesapeake Bay.
The first time Marlow held the controls was a little nerve-wracking.
“For a second, my heart didn’t work,” she said.
Now she’s feeling pretty confident taking off into the wild, blue yonder.
“It’s freeing to be in the air,” said Marlow, now a senior at St. Frances Academy. “It never ceases to amaze me.”
Her opportunity came as a result of Deacon B. Curtis Turner‘s idea to offer flying lessons to his students at St. Frances Academy and a generous gift from Ortega, a 1953 graduate of St. Frances Academy who was the nation’s first African-American woman to receive an officer’s commission in the U.S. Air Force.
Marlow was one of several students Deacon Turner asked to consider attending aviation school on scholarship.
“Who am I to say no?” she said. “Why would I say no?”
She spoke to the Catholic Review, the Baltimore archdiocesan news outlet, after her fourth lesson — after the small plane had to sit on the ground to wait out a storm.
“The nerves never really go away,” she said.
On the other hand, she’s learning more than how to fly.
“I’m constantly learning new things about myself and to have grit,” she said. “I’m channeling my emotions in a better way.”
Deacon Turner, St. Frances’ head of school and a permanent deacon with the Archdiocese of Washington, started flying eight years ago, thanks to an anniversary gift of flying lessons from his wife, Tara.
“It was one of those childhood dreams I could never realize,” he said.
Eight months later, he had his pilot’s license. The couple rents planes for their trips, whether it’s for lunch in Ocean City, Maryland, or to visit family in North Carolina.
“It’s a whole other world up there,” Deacon Turner said.
A student saw the photo of Deacon Turner and his wife flying a plane and started asking questions about his experience. That prompted a question of his own: How could he get students in the cockpit?
“I lamented I didn’t learn to fly until my late 40s,” Deacon Turner said. “God planted the seed four or five years ago but I didn’t know how to water it.”
Wishing he could do it and actually accomplishing it were two different things.
“I never thought I’d have the resources to do this,” he said.
That is, until Ortega offered funding to get the program started.
“Dr. Turner mentioned starting the flight program in the context of regular conversation on a visit at her home and the next thing we knew, Ortega was ready to take the lead by way of financial generosity to help Autumn begin lessons immediately,” Melissa D’Adamo, associate head of school, told the Catholic Review in an email.
Ortega’s $8,000 gift enabled lessons for two students.
“I had to jump at this,” said Ortega, noting the many blessings that have come her way through her 86 years.
“God has placed me in these positions to grow from,” said Ortga. “That has been my blessing.”
The application process was fairly simple. Several interested students were asked to memorize the NATO phonetic alphabet — Alfa (A), Bravo (B), Charlie (C) and so on, through Zulu (Z).
“Autumn came in the next day and had it memorized,” Deacon Turner said. She started lessons in April. “By the time she graduates, she’ll have her pilot’s license,” the deacon added.
While Deacon Turner flies with Marlow, he’s not the instructor. Frank Kennedy, Marlow’s instructor, is a retired Marine Corps officer who later flew 747s.
Marlow considers herself an ordinary girl. She likes to crochet and paint. She gardens with her grandfather. At school, she’s a cheerleader and has played lacrosse. “I’m into things that are girly,” she added.
She said flying has given her “a better outlook on my future” as she was searching for a career path. Maybe she’ll fly or join the Air Force. “This opens up opportunities,” she said.
That’s what Ortega was hoping for.
“I’m going to do for these girls what I could not do,” said Ortega, who is now retired and living in New Jersey. She worships at St. Joan of Arc Church in Marlton in the Diocese of Trenton.
Ortega, who grew up in St. Gregory the Great and St. Edward parishes in West Baltimore, said the first time she boarded a plane was at the start of military life at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. She spent her years in the Air Force in leadership and administrative assignments.
“I never did fly,” she added.
Ortega said she’d like to encourage others to make donations to continue and grow the program.
“My focus now is building a dependable money account for our pilot program,” she said.