Monday, December 4, 2023

Sky’s no limit for Lantana pilot

Lantana pilot Christy Wong lives by the philosophy that your attitude determines your altitude.

Christy Wong wishes she could say her flight plan to becoming an airline pilot has been a straight line. In reality, it’s far more complicated than that and includes more layovers than she cares to admit.

Yet here she sits, an inspiration to so many wannabe pilots who can’t wait to achieve their own dream of flying.

“I’ve wanted to fly since I was 4 years old. I didn’t actually become a pilot until I was 34, and that’s okay,” Wong said. “I’m incredibly grateful and blessed to be where I’m at right now — even with furloughs on the horizon.”

Wong, a longtime Lantana resident who many people know as the president and co-founder of the non-profit Lantana Cares, is one of the thousands of professional pilots worldwide who were grounded in March because of COVID-19.

She was in her last training class at American Eagle when everything was shut down, and email warnings of potential furloughs have been trickling in ever since. If that happens, no one knows how long the hiatus or the airline industry’s struggles will last.

But that’s where Wong has a leg up. Though her road has been long and winding — in between, she got married, had kids, and found herself working as an allergy specialist — she has since become a sought-after commercial pilot, certified instructor, and self-professed “accidental YouTube celebrity.”

She is part of a hit YouTube channel called “Taking Off” that has over 25,000 subscribers. She also has over 10,000 followers on Instagram. She owns a plane and is the president of the Aerovalley Flying Club.

The way she sees it, she has two choices: sulk over her current situation with the airline or continue to use her experience and popularity to help the next generation of pilots get where they want to be faster.

“I have my furloughed plan,” Wong said with a laugh. “I’m flying purely for fun right now, and I want to use my downtime as an opportunity to make a real difference for other people.”

Wong’s fun-loving personality and zest for flying could probably convince even someone afraid of heights to try their hand in the cockpit — especially when they hear none of her success thus far came easy.

Wong came from a very poor family that moved around a lot. Her earliest memories of wanting to fly were when she was 4. Her grandfather bought her a book called, “The Observer’s Book of Aircraft” by William Green, and there wasn’t a day that went by where she wasn’t thumbing through its pages and being mesmerized by the detailed photographs.

But becoming a pilot herself always seemed to be just out of her reach. Years later, as a student at UNLV, she would often sit in the viewing area at McCarran International Airport to watch the planes fly in as she was studying.

By the time she was 24, she finally had a chance to take her first discovery flight.

“I did two or three of them and got a great taste for it,” Wong said. “I felt like being a pilot was what I was born to do, and I was going to chase it. But then I looked at the price tag. I was a single mom without a lot of money, and I realized it just wasn’t an option for me at the time.”

Not to be deterred, Wong began researching other options and came across a website for one of the local flight schools. The old social media site MySpace was also big at the time, so she started messaging people who looked like pilots to find someone who could be her instructor.

As it turns out, one of the gentlemen who reached out to her was her future husband, Steve.

Steve and Christy hit it off almost immediately and eventually got married. But in a shocking twist, Steve, who was a corporate pilot for many years before losing his job in 2011, didn’t feel comfortable teaching her how to fly — at least not yet. It wasn’t until 2016, long after they had their son Mitchell, that Christy says he began softening on the idea.

“I remember him asking me what I wanted for Christmas. At that moment, I worked up the courage to ask him about teaching me to fly,” she said. “It took me so long to do it because I didn’t know how he’d feel about it after losing his job. He had gotten out of the industry entirely so he could find a job that would allow him to be home with me and the kids more, so he hadn’t touched a plane in five years. But he was incredibly supportive. It was such a great moment.”

Steve agreed, adding that it was the right moment for the happy couple to pursue another adventure.

“I viewed it as something we could do together, and our relationship was much different. We had been married for quite a while, and the thought of teaching her seemed more doable,” he said. “I wanted to teach her.”

That’s when Christy’s career really took off. Steve had let his flight instructor certification lapse, but he quickly got re-certified and was responsible for almost all of Christy’s ratings. Between 2017 and 2019, Christy earned her private pilot certification, instrument certification, single-engine commercial certification, and multi-engine certification.

She also became a Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI) and Certificated Flight Instructor Instrument (CFII).

“We basically found an economical way to teach me how to fly,” Christy said.

All the while, Christy was becoming quite the personality in the flying community. She was approached by a man named Dan Millican, who had started a YouTube channel that was gaining steam. Millican wanted to take the channel to the next level and asked Christy to join him.

They’ve since filmed 4.5 seasons and have now produced over 100 episodes of “Taking Off” and “In the Hangar,” where they take to the skies with pilots, controllers, instructors, celebrities, and just about anyone else who loves to fly. Their main aircraft are Dan’s Cessna 210 named “Lola” and Christy’s Piper Warrior named, “Wong Warrior,” but some episodes feature other aircraft, including helicopters and drones.

They release new episodes every Tuesday and Friday.

“He wanted me to be his partner, and I thought I’d help film a few. But it blew up,” Christy said. “People ask me about being a YouTube celebrity, and I am quick to tell them that it was completely unintentional. I had no idea, but it’s been so much fun. We’ve been able to produce some really great videos.”

While the current furlough situation can be a hard pill to swallow, Christy has such an incredible amount of experience under her belt that the sky is far from the limit to her aviation career. In Christy’s mind, your dream is what you make of it. It took her longer than she wanted to realize hers, but she’s made it this far — and now it’s time to pay it forward.

“I’ve ridden the emotional rollercoaster, but it hasn’t been for nothing,” she said. “This is a chance to make a difference.”

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