Teacher looks back on different career path

Katie Lyttle, Sports Editor

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Liesel Watkins is a seventh grade math teacher at John Sevier Middle School. Several years ago, however, she faced a choice that changed her entire life. She almost became a professional pilot instead.

Watkins’ love for flying started early.

“When I was in elementary and middle school, I used to go to the airport with my father and we would go fly out of Surgoinsville Airport and fly around the Tri-Cities,” she said. “When my father worked out of town, in Pennsylvania and Virginia, he would take his plane with him and I would go flying with him during the summer months.”

There are several steps one must follow in order to become a private pilot. One must be at least 17 years of age and pass a medical exam, successfully complete the flight training requirements and the knowledge exam. In the end, a private pilot applicant will need to pass a practical Federal Aviation Administration exam and a rigorous flight test.

“I started my flight training with Delmer Gillenwater in Surgoinsville, TN in July 1986,” Watkins said. “I was 18 years old. I had my solo flight at about 11 hours. In August of that year, I started college at Middle Tennessee State University where I double majored in Mathematics as well as a professional pilot.”

Even though becoming a pilot is hard work, Watkins still enjoyed pilot training.

“I loved every minute of the flight training except when it was very windy,” she said. “I tend to get motion sickness, so that was the only downside. I remember having an upset stomach and then vomiting on ‘final’ in one of those plastic purses that were popular back in the eighties.”

Becoming a commercial pilot was Watkins’ dream job for many years.

“I loved the idea of doing something I enjoyed and getting paid for it,” she said. “I also loved being outside and having the best office view one could imagine.”

Watkin met a young man during the summer of her freshman and sophomore years of college. She continued flying and working on her instrument rating, the second step in becoming a commercial pilot. Finally, however, the cost of flying and young love got in the way of her pilot career.

“I decided to marry this young man and we moved to North Carolina, where he served in the United States Air Force,” Watkins said. “Unfortunately, there was not a college close to the Air Force Base that offered a professional pilot degree, and we were young and broke, so I continued my other major and earned my teaching degree from East Carolina University.”

Watkins does not plan to quit teaching to become a full-time pilot.

“I believe I am now too old to finish my certification to become a commercial pilot,” she said. “I think my teaching career has been very fulfilling; I have been able to teach many students to pursue their own dream, whether it be a pilot, doctor or designer. Being a teacher has allowed me to have summers off with my children and I would not trade that for anything.”

Although she misses it a great deal, Watkins does not regularly fly.

“The last time I went flying was on Father’s Day 2016,” she said. “I rented a Cessna 172 from Tri-City Aviation and took my father up for a tour of the Sullivan and Hawkins counties. Of course, I had to pay for an instructor for the Cessna since I am not current on my pilot’s license.”

Watkins’ most interesting flight occurred in May 1987, when she was flying her father’s Cessna 150 from Murfreesboro to Surgoinsville.

“I had just received my private pilot’s license and was flying the plane home for the summer,” she said. “I had to wait for the weather to clear up so I could make the flight. After waiting for about 4 days for the weather to clear up for my flight, I filled out my flight plan and the weather was perfect, or so I thought.”

As she was flying above Dandridge, Tennessee, a summer thunderstorm popped up out of nowhere. Watkins caught the winds off of this storm and suddenly had to remember not to exceed her maneuvering speed.

“I quickly deviated north of the storm and had to pull back on the throttle to reduce my airspeed because I was being tossed around by the winds off of the storm,” she said. “After changing the flight plan somewhat and getting to a safer environment, I quickly realized that I needed to correct my heading due to flying north several miles. Thankfully, I was able to regain my correct heading and then landed safely in Surgoinsville within the hour. I was never so glad to be on land”

Watkins has some advice for young people who dream of becoming pilots.

“I highly encourage young people to follow their dreams,” she said. “We have so many talented, hard-working young men and women who would make excellent pilots. With the advancement of STEM subjects and ROTC being offered at the middle and high school levels, young minds can be engaged, and their love of flying can keep their interest level high.”

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