Peggy Espy Bakker ’67

Head (happily) in the clouds

When Peggy Espy Bakker ’67 told her husband she wanted to learn to fly airplanes, he said, “You’re too much of a chicken. You’d never do that.” A lot has changed in the nearly three decades since their conversation. Bakker has a new husband, for one thing. And she has logged more than 5,000 hours as a pilot and personal flight instructor for hundreds of students.

Bakker’s father was being carrier-qualified in an F4U Corsair when she was born, but while flying might have been in her genes, it wasn’t part of her upbringing. “My mother would have been very happy if I stayed home, raised my kids, and kept the house nice and clean,” she said.

Bakker’s independent spirit showed through when she left her Colorado home to attend Pacific University. She and her roommate rebelled, both against early-morning classes and against Pacific’s policy that female students must wear dresses. On the many occasions when they awoke late for class, Bakker said, “There we’d be, running from dorm to class, pulling curlers from our hair as we held our raincoats around us to hide our pants.”

After college, Bakker married and had two sons. She taught for a year but didn’t enjoy it, and she worked in a bank for a time, where the man next to her, she said, made more money doing less work. As the early 1970s went by, her experiences didn’t turn her into what she calls a “women libber.” But she did grow bored with her life – so bored that she signed up for a ground school class, where she could learn the basics of flying.

Despite her then-husband’s harsh words – or perhaps, in part, because of them – Bakker took flying lessons soon after. “It was the first thing I did for me,” she said. “I got my college degree, but my parents told me to do that. Flying was the first thing I did on my own.”

In her ground school class, Bakker had struggled, confused by some of the terms and too shy, as the only female, to ask questions. She didn’t have the same trouble once she was in the air. “They put me behind the controls, and that’s all she wrote. It was an absolute thrill,” she said.

Bakker had found her calling, and by 1980, she was a certified flight instructor. She still teaches at Aeroventure, a private flight school in Petaluma, Calif. The job doesn’t pay particularly well, there are no benefits, and teaching just five students takes more than eight hours a day. None of that matters much to her.

“If you stand out on the runway and watch someone flying solo for the first time, it’s a fabulous feeling,” she said, adding that sometimes her eyes fill with tears as she watches the plane soar overhead. “It’s like taking a baby and watching them become a whole person right in front of you.”

Bakker said she still gets excited every time she flies. “I’ve seen some of the most beautiful things in the world. Beautiful, crisp days you can just feel. The Golden Gate Bridge when the light hits it just right. Sunrises and sunsets. And the nights … Night flying can be dangerous, but it can also be very, very beautiful.”

Of course, it’s not just the scenery that appeals to Bakker. “I still enjoy the thrill of it,” she admitted. “I like to do aerobatics. I like teaching stalls and flying tail draggers – planes that are harder to fly.”

She said she especially loves to fly her new Piper Cherokee 140, particularly with a certain two-year-old co-pilot. “My grandson loves to sit up front and fly with me,” she said. “He calls me Grandma Airplane.”

Photo: Peggy Espy Bakker (left) with a flight student.

Peggy Espy Bakker (left) with a flight student. Photo courtesy of Peggy Espy Bakker.

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