The sky’s the limit for an aspiring pilot — except, for many, the financial burden of entry to a career in aviation can be all too grounding.
Enter The BettyFlies Foundation. Only a little more than a year after getting off the ground, the organization is navigating the uncharted territory that is fundraising in an era of COVID-19 obstacles.
But Suzanne Pfister — founder and president of the relatively new nonprofit dedicated to continuing her mother’s legacy by funding flight school scholarships and programming in Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics — remains optimistic. At 6 p.m. this evening, she’ll host NASA astronaut Nicole Stott with The BettyFlies Foundation advisory board member Jill Meyers in the first-ever virtual rendezvous.
It’s not the first iteration of the flagship fundraiser, however; but in its second year, like so many fundraisers for so many other nonprofits in the valley, it will be online.
“We did very well last year — the community welcomed us with open arms. This is such a collaborative, amazing community,” Pfister said. “I was stunned, frankly, by the reception that we received as the new kid on the block.”
Thanks to that successful launch, The BettyFlies Foundation was able to fund five $12,000 flight school scholarships to dedicated, serious aviation students throughout the Roaring Fork Valley: Hannah Popish, Porter Holmbeck, Asher Fite, Anders Weiss, and Jack Fox.
Popish, an Aspen High School incoming junior, has been flying since she was a 10-year-old in Paonia.
“As soon as I went into the high school freshman year, I joined the Aspen Flight Academy to do my serious training — to get my license,” she said. “Right now, I have my student private pilot’s license. I’m aiming for my private pilot’s license when I turn 17 — that’s in October, so I’m almost there!”
With so much uncertainty in the weeks ahead of the new school year, flying has been a mainstay to Popish’s mental and emotional stability in maneuvering the severely limited student life ushered by COVID-19.
“That’s the only thing that has been keeping me sane through quarantine. All of my sports — they’re just starting up now. I’m like, ‘What am I gonna do?’” she reflected. “It’s really relaxing, actually. To be honest, I have my driver’s permit — when I drive, I am stressed because I’m on a road with a bunch of maniacs. When you’re in the sky, you’re by yourself for the most part.”
And while her time in the sky may be primarily solo, Popish and her cohort at the Aspen Flight Academy aim to bring as many interested students as possible under their proverbial wing.
“There should totally be more people trying to be in aviation. There’s a shortage in pilots in general, all across the world,” she said. “It does take a lot of grit, and it does take someone with interest in flying to go through the ground school. But I really do think we need more pilots, and more female pilots, too. Freshman year, I was the only girl in maybe five or six different classes.”
The goal, she continued, is to recruit 10% of an Aspen High School graduating class into the program.
But there are real costs associated with flying, she acknowledged, and being the recipient of one of the $12,000 The BettyFlies Foundation scholarships has been a huge relief to Popish personally.
“We have to pay for the plane, and we also have to pay for our instructor until we start soloing. It’s still expensive — it's $445 to rent the plane every time I go. It adds up if I’m flying one or two times a week,” she said.
Isaac Musselman found The BettyFlies Foundation through the organization’s website, Pfister recalled.
“There’s an application form on our website,” she said. “And I encourage anyone — it’s open to anyone to apply — and if we fund it in alliance with our board, we will appoint them. The problem is, we are a grassroots, very small nonprofit.”
Most of the scholarships were “cobbled together” through smaller donations, she continued, and the same was true of the grant the organization was able to award Musselman to support his Basalt High School Aerospace Club.
Musselman credits much of his interest that eventually led to his founding the school’s club to his experience at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork. As an eighth grader, he was required to work closely with a mentor on what he compared with a capstone project. Musselman, an avid science fiction consumer, focused on jets and rocketry.
“We made several types of rocket fuel — some of which worked, some of which didn’t work. We built a seven-foot long jet and attached it to a Go-Kart. That got me really into the trial-and-error aspect of designing and testing things and engineering your way through a problem,” he said. “I really wanted to recreate that and make it more accessible to anyone who’s interested. I think a lot of people don’t know they’re good at attacking a problem from different angles and getting something to fly until they actually do it.”
And so, during his junior year at Basalt High School, he successfully pursued the 5Point Film Festival’s Dream Project, which secured him a one-time grant to found his club.
“The BettyFlies Foundation, their sponsoring us has been super helpful because they’re really helping the club stay true to my vision of making the club accessible to everyone,” he said.
It’s stories like Popish’s and Musselman’s that inspire Pfister’s passion for continuing to grow her organization. Originally for her mother, Betty Haas Pfister — who received the Congressional Gold Medal as a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, in World War II — Suzanne realized that continuing to ensure younger generations’ interest in aviation is every bit as important as her initial goal of lobbying to name the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport’s future terminal to the local aviation heroine.
“One student was not even intending on finishing school, and now he wants to go to college. That, to me, says it all,” she said. “If as The BettyFlies Foundation, we can keep creating [those successes], I’m going to keep working on this in my mother’s name and to lift up her legacy.”