Ordinary everyday pilots taking flight in Madison

Here in the Madison area, the aviation community says that if you’ve ever been curious about becoming a pilot, they’d love to take you up in the air.
planes on the ground at an airport
Photo by Maggie Ginsberg

Piloting an airplane is something most of us will never do in our lifetimes. But of the roughly 609,000 certified pilots in the United States, more than 80% are flying general aviation aircraft. Many are civilians flying for recreation, work or personal travel, or the simple pleasure of floating among the clouds. Here in the Madison area, the aviation community says that if you’ve ever been curious about becoming a pilot, they’d love to take you up in the air.

It’s the first nice Sunday of the year after another brutal winter, and the sky above Wisconsin Aviation on Madison’s north-east side is streaked with airplanes.

Most are just coming in, small two- and four-person rentals that spent the day flying to Iowa or southeast Wisconsin, or to whatever little airport restaurant has provided a destination excuse for the proverbial “$100 burger.” Shane Baker stands next to me on the jetway just outside the terminal, showing off his pride and joy: a 1965 grasshopper-green-and-white Cessna 172 he bought in 2018 for about the same price as a new Toyota Corolla. He’s already taken one trip today. He and his 17-year-old son, who is currently in flight school himself, flew down to Moline, Illinois, to grab some lunch and tour a John Deere tractor museum.

“There we go. We’re starting to get a little bit of sunset,” Baker says, pointing to the horizon, which is beginning to tinge peach and pink. This is the moment he bet on almost a week ago after studying the weather and wind forecasts to find just the right time to take me up for a sunset tour of Madison’s isthmus and the state Capitol building — and it’s about to pay off.

Baker shows me how he runs through his standard preflight check, walking around the aircraft looking for frayed cables and loose bolts, testing the elevators controlled by the yoke and the piano hinges on the ailerons that help the plane bank for a turn — terms and phrases that fly right over my head like the planes above. Part of flight training is learning every inch of the aircraft from fore to aft. Pilots aren’t just pilots — they’re also history and geography buffs, garage mechanics and amateur meteorologists. They become fluent in an entirely new language and glean unexpected skills, like how to stay calm in a crisis or how to manage nerves and anxiety.

shane baker next to his plane

Shane Baker (Photo by Patrick Stutz)

“For me, learning to fly was a challenge. Not a lot of people do it,” Baker says. “You have to commit to it. The rate of people who start any sort of aviation program and wash out or give up is pretty high, close to like 50%.”

Some estimates put it even higher, he says — up to 80%. Baker beat those odds, and then some, falling fully in love with a world he really didn’t know existed until he started flight school at 36. The IT professional, who grew up on the south side of Madison, now lives with his wife and son on an 80-acre farm in nearby Marshall with a 2,500-foot hayfield grass strip long enough to land his airplane. Although his career eventually led to regular work travel to fix software systems for health care companies, he’d never flown on an airplane until he was an adult. One of the first commercial flights he can remember taking was for his 2002 honeymoon. Flying just wasn’t on his radar, nor in his family’s budget.

“We hopped in the ’78 Ford LTD station wagon like [in] the ‘Wally World [Vacation] movie,’ you know? That’s what we did. The idea of flying someplace just wasn’t in the cards for us,” he says.

But after years of working his way up in his career and forgoing pretty much every other possible hobby — “I don’t fish, I don’t hunt, I don’t own a boat,” he says — Baker finally had enough money set aside to start flight school in 2013. With an average cost of $6,000-$12,000 to complete the 40 hours of flight time and lessons required to get your private pilot certificate (what most call a license), it wasn’t cheap or easy, but Baker was hooked. Besides giving him a fun challenge, it opened up future side-career opportunities, and so the price tag seemed comparable to the costs associated with a college education — and, like a degree, a private pilot certificate never expires (it does require review every two years). Baker soloed in 2015, earned his private pilot certificate in 2016, bought his airplane in 2018 and got his instrument rating in 2020, which essentially allows pilots to fly through clouds and in conditions when visibility isn’t great.

But today we have clear skies and, just before this sunset flight, Baker has 855 hours of flight time in his logbook. He’s close to completing his commercial certificate, and he’s president of the local EAA Chapter 93. He’s enjoyed special excursions with his wife and son, and taken many daytrips to places like Wisconsin’s Cornucopia or Washington Island (Baker keeps folding rechargeable bikes in the plane so they can tool around and explore). But one of the most unexpected gifts flying has given him has more to do with what he’s found inside himself.

man pulling out a small plane out of storage

Shane Baker (Photo by Patrick Stutz)

“I’m a naturally … I don’t want to say ‘anxious’ person, but I am kind of wired that way,” he says. “I definitely think [flying has] helped make me more confident. It’s something to be proud of. It’s something I’m excited my son is interested in.”

Baker checks the tire pressure, the gas and oil gauges — all good. Then he checks his watch. “Why don’t we start getting you in?” he says.

We climb up, click the heavy metal seat belts into place and don twin headsets. In the left seat, Baker chats back and forth with the air traffic control tower, rattling off the call numbers that ID his plane: 8580 Uniform (though the controllers, who know him well, call him “8-0-Unicorn”), and soon we are taxiing down Runway 2-1.

“This time of year, those guys are really problematic,” he says, pointing out some ducks at two o’clock, then checking the weather and controls one last time. “Flaps are up, amps are up, airplane is happy. She’s ready to go.” The cockpit feels cozy and about the height and vibe of a classic Suburban as we jiggle forward down the runway, approaching the ground speed of 80 miles per hour that we’ll need to reach to climb-out. The air is perfectly calm, not a crosswind to be found, leaving Baker’s hands free to swap his regular glasses with his sunglasses. Out the window to my right, the commercial airliners and larger hangars at the adjacent Dane County Regional Airport whiz past increasingly faster.

“All right,” Baker says, “airspeed’s alive.”

And then we are up.

Maggie Ginsberg and Shane Baker in a plane

Maggie Ginsberg and Shane Baker (Photo by Maggie Ginsberg)

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Liftoff — it’s a feeling humankind has been chasing since before 1903, when the Wright Brothers finally made history with the first-ever flight. For Richard Morey, 64, the president and third-generation owner of Morey Airplane Co. (which runs the Middleton Municipal Airport, better known as Morey Field), his family’s aviation history feels about that long and almost as legendary.

“I idolized my grandfather and had a very good relationship with [him], and that was just kind of a given; I was going to run the airport,” Morey says.

Morey’s grandfather, Howard Morey, was largely responsible for starting Madison’s first airport — Pennco Field/Royal Airport in Monona, out where South Towne Mall is now — in 1925. He was also one of the era’s “barnstormers,” those goggle-clad, daredevil stunt pilots who tore up the skies after World War I and inspired kids everywhere to dream of flying. By the early 1920s, he was part of a group of prominent local businessmen who championed the area’s need for a public airport and attracted Charles Lindbergh’s historic visit in 1927. Howard Morey ran the Madison Municipal Airport (which would become Dane County Regional Airport) until the U.S. military took over during World War II. Then he started Morey Airport Co. in 1932 and the Middleton airport in 1942, which he turned over to his son — the aptly named Field Morey — in 1969. The city of Middleton bought the airport in 1998 and contracted with the Morey family to run it, an arrangement that continues to this day. Richard Morey became president in 2003, and his only sibling, Debbie Maier, came on as office manager in 2006.

view of Madison from a plane

Photo by Maggie Ginsberg

Today, the airport houses 48 hangars, about 100 airplanes, and sees around 42,000 takeoffs and landings each year. Some are private pilots who own their own small planes, like Baker does at Wisconsin Aviation. Others rent one of the Morey Airplane Co.’s planes by the hour. Then there are the business travelers and charters, and the shipments from Exact Sciences that arrive each week. A fair number of those 42,000 annual takeoffs and landings — this is Richard Morey’s favorite — involve flight students.

“I learn to fly through my teaching over and over again,” Morey says. Although he started out as an airplane mechanic at his father’s and grandfather’s insistence, and managed the maintenance shop for 10 years, he began teaching in the mid-’90s and has logged 19,500 hours of flight time over the course of his life. (His dad, still flying at the age of 83, has 38,000 hours.) Morey says that introducing students to the freedoms and challenges of flying an airplane is rewarding beyond measure.

“I experience their triumphs. I experience their frustrations. And the people you meet, incredible people … it’s a privilege,” Morey says. “There are days when I go up and say, ‘I should be paying my students for this.’ Because it is absolutely beautiful.”

Those students are more varied than people think, Morey says, and come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some are young and just starting out, perhaps on their way to careers in aviation. Some couldn’t afford it without scholarships, which are more readily available through various local and national organizations than people realize, he says, but still difficult to obtain.

And then there are the students like Nancy Burton, who only decided to learn to fly after she retired from her 40-plus-year career as a registered nurse.

Nancy Burton in front of a plane

Nancy Burton (Photo by Beth Skogen)

“My brother was a Navy pilot and it was something I always thought would be cool, but never thought I could do,” says Burton, remembering a book she had in fifth grade called “A Girl Can Dream,” which was about a female pilot. Five years ago, Burton attended the Heavy Bomber Weekend at Wisconsin Aviation and felt inspired while wandering around and admiring all the rebuilt World War II bombers and Vietnam-era aircraft and meeting the people who repaired and flew them. “I was talking to the folks that do this, and I said, ‘Would it be dumb if I, at my age, learned to fly?’ ” she recalls. “They all said, ‘No, that’s no problem.’  ”

Burton signed up for ground school and flight lessons and earned her private pilot certificate in 2020. Once she dug into the history and the educational component, with its plethora of rules, regulations and systems, she couldn’t get enough of the mental challenge. Then there are the aeronautical and mechanical skills she’s picked up, an unexpected benefit she has to laugh about now.

“My Subaru Outback runs on magic. I take it to the dealer and they do things and then it runs,” she says. “But I know what it looks like under the hood of the Cessna 152 and I know all the systems.”

Most of all, there’s the community that has greatly enriched her life. Not only does she have a group of women pilots to fly around with — a particular favorite is sightseeing over Tyrol Basin and Blue Mound State Park, then following the Wisconsin River before landing in Lone Rock for lunch at Sam’s Airport Diner — she also gets to perform volunteer work introducing other people to the joys she’s found in general aviation.

view of Madison from a plane

Photo by Maggie Ginsberg

“It’s beautiful, it’s fun and there’s just so much to know,” she says. “When I first started, it was hard, because I didn’t know anybody. Now I’m in three different organizations and we do awesome work, and there’s a lot of support.”

Those groups include the local EAA chapter 93, which sponsors various community outreach efforts like the Eagle Flights program for adults and the Young Eagle Flights for kids (and for seniors, pre-pandemic, the affectionately nicknamed Bald Eagles or Golden Eagles, depending who you ask). Burton is also a member of the Four Lakes chapter of Women in Aviation International, or WAI, which started a $5,000 scholarship last year and sponsors events such as the Girls in Aviation Day. These efforts are crucial because — even though Burton now knows that women were barnstormers, too, and plenty of female pilots have made history — there’s still a massive gap that needs closing.

WAI Four Lakes chapter founder Sarah Pozdell faced this gap early on when, as a 16-year-old girl in a small northern Wisconsin town in the 1990s, she told a U.S. Air Force recruiter that she was interested in studying aeronautical engineering and learning how to fly.

“And the recruiter, an older guy, looked at me, let out the biggest laugh and said, ‘Girls don’t fly airplanes. And you probably can’t do engineering, either,’ ” Pozdell recalls.

His words unfortunately caused her to backburner the dream for many years, though she never stopped watching the airplanes flying overhead and whispering to herself that someday she would fly one. Six years ago, while staring up at the sky after a particularly hard day at work, she watched a plane fly by and muttered her usual wish. “And then this little voice in the way, way back of my head started yelling,

‘Well, why not today?’ ” Pozdell says. “And I literally the next morning called the flight school and said I’d like to start taking flight lessons.”

view of the runway

Photo by Maggie Ginsberg

A little more than a year later she had her private pilot’s certificate. She’s since gotten her instrument rating and her high performance endorsement, which allows her to fly planes with higher horsepower. She also says there are “a ton, a ton, a ton” of scholarships available (like the one her organization started last year) to help cover the substantial cost of flight training.

“I love, love, love it. … It’s a great hobby, but it takes up a lot of my time and my finances,” she says, laughing. “Now I work simply so I can fly.”

Stories like Burton’s and Pozdell’s don’t surprise Richard Morey. As proud as he is of his family’s history, which is rife with stories of prominent politicians, celebrity encounters, record-breaking flights and critical trainings for military operations, there are parts of aviation history in general that don’t sit well with him at all.

“The aviation community is pretty much white guys, and that is a shame, in my estimation,” Morey says, adding that only 7 to 9% of pilots are women — ridiculous, he says.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, roughly 94% of U.S. pilots identify as white. There’s also a nationwide pilot shortage. That shortage, as well as the gender and racial disparities in the aviation community, are things many groups are actively working to address. One of those groups is the Willa Brown Aviation Academy, a nonprofit founded in 2021 by experienced local airline and commercial pilots Fareed Guyot, Susan Schwaab and Michael Griffin. Named for the first African American woman to earn a U.S. pilot’s license (and run for Congress, among a list of other things), the Willa Brown academy organizes curricula and flight experiences like Camp Willa to introduce kids of color to general aviation.

“If 51% of the population are female and [they are] only 7% of the pilots, we’re underutilizing and underserving the community,” Morey says, adding that the commercial airlines know this, too, and have begun their own initiatives to create low- to no-cost career paths for potential pilots — which means that a lot of the barriers that used to be in place are no longer as daunting, and that investing in flight training could really pay off in the job market. Either way, says Morey, whether commercially or recreationally, he’d love to see more people up in the air.

“This is a big tent,” Morey says. “We want everyone to be involved with this because the more people we have, the better the general aviation outlook in the future is.”

Sara Siddiqui climbing out of a plane

Sara Siddiqui, pilot and flight instructor (Photo by Hillary Schave)

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Sara Siddiqui is a flight instructor at Morey Field and a volunteer with Camp Willa, but like Baker and Burton, she had no idea growing up that she’d become a pilot. After moving with her parents from India to America as a preschooler, all of Siddiqui’s childhood vacations involved long flights back to visit family. She remembers loving going to the airport and especially sitting in the window seat. “That hasn’t changed,” she says, laughing. “But I didn’t necessarily know that being a pilot or flying was an option.”
Then in 2016, she was at the salon getting her hair done when her stylist mentioned that her next client was a woman who flies her own small plane to Florida to escape Wisconsin winters.

“That’s when I realized, ‘Oh, regular people can [do this],’ ” says Siddiqui, who had driven past Morey Field countless times while growing up in Middleton but never gave it any thought. She’d never been exposed to general aviation and had no friends or family who flew. But that day, she says, “It just clicked for some reason.”

Siddiqui signed up for a Discovery Flight, an $89-$104 introductory flight open to the general public at both Wisconsin Aviation and Morey Field that includes a mini ground school lesson and in-air flight time with a pilot instructor. It was life-changing. But Siddiqui didn’t yet know how unusual it was that she had a female flight instructor, a pilot who also let her help with the takeoff.

Pilot and instructor Sara Siddiqui takes off from Middleton’s Morey Field.

Pilot and instructor Sara Siddiqui takes off from Middleton’s Morey Field. (Photo by Hillary Schave)

“I just remember the airplane just getting light and suddenly we were flying,” says Siddiqui, who enrolled in flight lessons right away and earned her private pilot certificate about a year later. Next came her instrument rating, then her role as an instructor at Morey Field. Last year she had the opportunity to volunteer with Camp Willa, where she was able to introduce kids earlier to what she’s finally found in adulthood.

“It’s like opening a door into a whole other world they didn’t know existed before,” she says.

For her, that door is wide open, and for now she’s keeping it that way. With the skills she’s learning and ratings she’s earning, the sky really is the limit for what she could become: charter pilot, cargo pilot, airline pilot, aerial firefighter, air ambulance pilot and more.

“I love flying and I want a career in aviation and there are so many avenues,” she says. “There are so many options out there and I just want to keep them all open.”

When people find out Siddiqui is a pilot, they’re sometimes shocked. “I’d like to think the disbelief has nothing to do with being a woman, but who knows?” she says. Now that she’s aware that she’s part of the low percentage of pilots who are female or people of color, she’s especially cognizant of how influential it was that she had a female flight instructor herself.

“I’m very aware of the effort and basically the trailblazing from women in the past to be where I am today, so it’s not something I take lightly,” says Siddiqui, who is also a member of the local WAI, as well as The Ninety-Nines, an international organization of women pilots.

Sara Siddiqui in front of a plane

Photo by Hillary Schave

Flying has given Siddiqui so many gifts and big moments. There was that first solo flight, when the cockpit felt so much lighter without her instructor in the seat beside her and she filled the unusual quiet by talking to herself in her instructor’s voice: Bank left, add a little rudder, breathe. Flying has also given Siddiqui a front-row seat to things she otherwise would have never seen in this lifetime. Floating a few thousand feet above a fireworks show on the Fourth of July. Watching a massive squall line release a thunderstorm over Chicago from a safe 100-mile distance. Sharing airspace with soaring cranes and eagles.

Learning to fly has also taught her confidence and patience: how to take in and respond to feedback, how to communicate clearly and concisely, how not to overthink or get in her own way.

“You learn so many skills, it’s so broad,” she says. “And you grow as a pilot, but you really grow as a person.” She’s challenged by the fact that no two flights are the same, and she loves being able to empower other would-be pilots. Most of all, she wants anyone who’s ever thought about flying to at least take a scenic flight.

We’re very lucky here, she says: “Madison is beautiful from the sky.”

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And it is. Anyone who has ever gotten a glimpse of Madison’s isthmus from a window seat on the approach into Dane County Regional Airport knows this well. But it’s different when you’ve got the wraparound view from the cockpit, as I learn that day with Shane Baker. The sunset isn’t one that would have grabbed me from the ground, but from the sky, it’s a stunner. The isthmus looks so small, wedged neatly between the lakes, Washington Avenue threading the Capitol from east to west in a striking line. Then the Capitol dome lights up, as if the city has switched on the lights just for us.

“So here’s a question,” Baker says, about 10 minutes in. “Would you like to fly?”

He maintains control of the throttle pedals but I take the yoke in front of me, pull back slightly to keep the altitude and lean into a right bank at his instruction. It feels like driving in 3D — not just simple lefts and rights, but subtle ups and downs. And I begin to understand — as we float over Camp Randall Stadium, Governor’s Island and Monona Terrace — how rare it is, how unique, how this can get under your skin and leave you hooked, wanting more, forever.

“Does this not ever get old?” I ask Baker.

“Never, ever,” he says. “I still can’t believe that I’m lucky enough to experience this.”

Still, I’m more than relieved to give him back control of the aircraft and return to my role as awed passenger, admiring the city we both love from the sky.

Maggie Ginsberg is an associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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