With or Without Wings

Whether it’s the control board or the classroom, Addison Roberts soars high with her aviation achievements

Episode 2: Addison Roberts

A Before We Could Drink Series

“An old friend of mine was based in Maine, working as a youth group leader. He’d always known very interesting people, and at some point, he shared Addison’s story with me.

“I soon discovered that she’d been offered an opportunity to work for American Airlines, but couldn’t accept on account of her age. Here’s someone who’s totally qualified – an amazing pilot, prevented from seizing this big break, all because of some stupid law. I wanted to explore that story. I was overwhelmed by her passion. To witness that much dedication was incredible. She did everything in her power to earn respect in a male-dominated sphere, and never navigated these spaces with bitterness. I admire her positivity so much.”

– Leah Judson, Before We Could Drink Creator

“Capturing the moment; taking it all in.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“I love that when I’m flying, my problems don’t seem so big. Venturing into the unknown… the adrenaline rush goes hand in hand. I’ve always thrived in that space.”

Peering through the pane of a boxy, metallic cockpit, Addison Roberts assesses her domain. Clouds drift by in fluffy streams as bug-like civilizations scurry and skitter below, shadowed by the craft they created, oblivious to their insignificance. Up here, a humbling spectacle grasps the senses in a trance. Everything seems more fragile – more essential – sharpening perspective and refining perception.

“I liked cars growing up. Planes were just cooler versions,” Addison jokes, summarizing the origins of her fascination. “It’s also that impression of being above, and looking down. It’s so beautiful – you realize it’s quite profound. You appreciate just how delicate everything is, and how you’re part of something so much bigger than yourself. I haven’t found that feeling anywhere else.”

“Capturing the moment; taking it all in.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

As a child, Addison would spend hours zipping and prancing about on her trampoline, striving to perfect somersaults and cartwheels. Even then, the thrill of the challenge was an exhilarating emotion – a sensation she kept returning to.

“I loved being in the air,” she admits. “Rock climbing, trees, you name it. As soon as I could legally skydive, I was straight there. When you’ve got a temperament like mine, you’re constantly chasing the next adventure.”

Intoxicated by the prospect of climbing through the skies, Addison discovered a deep-seated love for flying when she was 15. Long before setting foot in a plane, engagement began on the page – more specifically, Through The Gates of Splendor, by Elisabeth Elliot.

Published in 1957, the text recounts the story of ‘Operation Auca’ – an evangelist expedition, undertaken by five American missionaries, all of whom tragically perished in their search for the Huaorani tribe of Ecuador.

“It wasn’t the happiest of tales, but that was the first time I realized you could fly planes to uncharted areas, and see other parts of the world,” she says. “Prior to that, I thought aviation was just industrial flights and 737s. I didn’t realize you could utilize air travel as a means of discovery – opening doors, to meet new people.”

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Enthused by the potential of guided flight, Addison’s intrigue intensified. Soon, she was actively searching for ways to don the cap and begin her ascent.

“I often say I’ll try anything once,” she laughs. “There was an instructor who lived in a community built around a runway – Jim Ballard. I owe it all to that man. He knew that American Airlines had a college for cadets and encouraged me to apply. He introduced me to one of their chief fliers, and got me into that program.”

Even at a heavily discounted $100 per hour, lessons were a steep investment for Addison’s teenage accounts, but passion overrode the financial burden. Working three separate jobs, she subsidized the sessions entirely of her own accord, maintaining persistence in the face of a seemingly intractable obstacle.

“I really toiled throughout high school, just to ensure that I could stay in the sky. It was difficult, but it paid off,” she observes. “Following those lessons, I was eventually accepted into the academy.”

Aeronautics is a niche interest, and for Addison, it’s made more unorthodox when considering the statistics. Women are staggeringly underrepresented, making up a meager 7% of qualified professionals.

“It has come a long way, even though we’re still massively marginalized,” she notes. “My mentor, Carrie Bean, had the best advice – she told me not to expect discrimination, but not to be surprised if I ran into it, which I invariably did.”

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

As well as journeying for business purposes, Addison would also accompany aircraft as a safety specialist, chaperoning crews for private trips. Being airborne became an obsession.

“Anytime I could get in an airplane, I would jump at the opportunity. I was even offered a presidential scholarship at Abilene Christian University in Texas, which I turned down in favor of flying. Thankfully, my parents supported me every step of the way. I’d just turned 18, and we drove down to Florida. On my own, living in Miami, so far from home. It was crazy, but I did it because I love what I do.”

Although her skills were extensive and varied, Addison still encountered unfair treatment on the basis of certain immutable factors. While working for a pipeline company in New Mexico, she would fly along the conduits, investigating spills and prospective problems. As the only female pilot who’d ever worked for the firm, competence was overlooked, as gender and age – irrelevant characteristics – became unjustly emphasized.

“People underestimate how physical aircraft can be.” Photos 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“You just have to be the bigger person and let it go. I wasn’t taken seriously. Consistently told I was too young, or that I should be wearing skirts and dresses. I even had people proposition and harass me. It wasn’t the most professional atmosphere, but it was a big learning experience that I’m thankful for. Many of my peers stood up and defended my capabilities, so I guess that was a silver lining.”

Being in the minority hasn’t been easy, but Addison’s experiences have fortified a gutsy spirit. Trials and tribulations enriched an outlook defined by courage and resolve. Now, she’s determined to become an archetype for other aspiring skippers – young girls seeking a recognizable role model, in particular.

“Having someone you can identify with… I think that makes the dream tangible. My eventual plan is to fly larger jets, and get to the airlines in a few months. I’m about 250 hours away from my target,” she explains, referring to the 1500-hour stipulation for commercial pilots.

“People underestimate how physical aircraft can be.” Photos 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“The joy is the job.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“The joy is the job.” Photo 2022 © Leah Judson | FUJIFILM GFX100S and GF45mmF2.8 R WR

“On top of that, I recently received my flight instructor certificate. I’m training budding aviators how to do what I do, and that’s been incredibly rewarding.”

Fostering belief in the pursuit of ambitions, an encouraging footnote concludes the conversation.

“I’m fond of the idea of having something to follow, but also being a teacher, and having someone following you. You don’t have to be rich – we certainly weren’t. The prospects are there, you just have to go out and get them.”

 

To learn more about Before We Could Drink and how it got started, click here