How I Learn by Doing

Soaring to New Heights

Grounded by the pandemic, one student discovered an unexpected path that's taken her higher than ever.

A young woman wearing a headset sits in the pilot seat of a green and white airplane
Alessandra Rizzo sits in her Cessna 180 at the San Luis Obispo Airport. The plane was built in 1955 and purchased by Rizzo’s grandfather in 1961. She is the third generation in her family to fly it.

Like most people, I didn’t get out much in 2020. In fact, the only weekly outing I had was my piano lessons, and all the practicing was starting to grate on my family’s nerves. That December, my father took matters into his own hands and bought me an introductory flight lesson at our local flight school. My instructor that day, Emmie Smith, was just a few years older than me and was excelling at a job that I thought was just for old men. She showed me that there was a place for me to succeed in aviation.

Emmie introduced me to the Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots founded by Amelia Earhart that provides opportunities for female pilots. With Emmie’s encouragement, I applied for and received their flight training scholarship, and started working toward my private pilot certificate. Throughout my private pilot training, Emmie was my instructor and mentor.

In June 2021, I passed my check ride, which is the final examination needed to receive a pilot certification. Shortly after, I started working at ACI Jet in San Luis Obispo because it would allow me to continue training at a reduced rate. I began working on my instrument rating, but by the time I had passed my written test for it, Emmie had gotten another job and I was in need of a new instructor.

My aviation journey has taught me that professional success, like successful piloting, requires diligence, accountability and self-efficacy.

That’s when I reached out to Herv Hodgson. He had just retired from a long career in corporate aviation and was a little hesitant to take on a new student, but he took me on anyway. In the last two years, Herv has coached me through my instrument rating, commercial certificate and both of my flight instructor certificates. Part of learning a new skill is finding a good mentor, and I am so thankful to Herv for his generosity with his time and energy. Both Emmie and Herv greatly impacted my aviation journey through their emphasis on constantly pushing to improve and finding the joy in flight. Last fall, I became a certified flight instructor myself, and I hope to pass that passion and commitment to excellence on to my own students.

I also serve on the board of the Mustang Aviation Club at Cal Poly and have been lucky enough to promote a community of aviation both on- and off-campus. This past winter quarter, I even taught the private pilot ground school that our club runs. In March, I earned my instrument flight instructor license and recently won another scholarship from the Ninety-Nines that will allow me to complete my commercial multi-engine rating this summer. In the future, I hope to earn my multi-engine flight instructor license.

My aviation journey has taught me that professional success, like successful piloting, requires diligence, accountability and self-efficacy. You have to be able to do what will keep you and those around you safe, develop and execute a plan that you can adjust as needed without overthinking, and treat everyone you come across with respect as you work toward a common goal.