Patricia “Patty” Wagstaff
Dare Devil/Aerobatic Pilot
Energetic and spirited from earliest childhood, Patty Wagstaff has built a life of adventure, risk, and courage. Following her dreams even when no reward was in sight, her dedication has pushed the limits of aerobatic flight. Determined to succeed and to create her own opportunities, Patty has earned worldwide recognition for her accomplishments as a woman, and as a pilot, flying thrilling low-level aerobatic routines in competitions and air shows before millions of spectators each year.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri on September 11th, 1951, Patricia Rosalie Kearns Combs is the eldest of two children, both daughters, of Robert and Rosalie Combs. Robert Combs, an Air Force pilot who flew B25s, eventually left the military to pursue a career as a Captain with Japan Airlines.
Though Patty, as a girl, was not raised to think of a career, her parents supported her interests, and encouraged her above all not to be fearful. When, at age ten, she showed interest in flying, her father invited her to come with him, letting her circle Mt. Fuji in the DC6 he captained.
Both the Combs girls would follow their father’s model, each building her own aviation career. For sister Toni that was as a Captain for Continental Airlines. For Patty, the course of her career was less transparent, but still she sought to achieve, knowing she would have to create her opportunities. She loved learning, but resisted the rigidity of her Catholic education, and rejected college in favor of world travel and life experience in the turbulent world of the 1960s and ‘70s. Returning to the U.S., Patty followed her family to Alaska. There, a job in Dillingham as an economic development planner for isolated native communities regularly took her deep into Alaska’s rugged back-country. Often she went to places only accessible by air.
But Patty’s first experience with bush flying was not a positive one: the small plane she chartered crashed on its first flight. So Patty learned to fly herself, hiring attorney, pilot, and later husband, Bob Wagstaff, to travel with her in his Cessna 185 floatplane. Intrigued by flying, Patty raced through her ratings and began instructing in tailwheel and bush flying. Though she had never even seen aerobatics, a life-long curiosity led her, at age 30, to pursue aerobatic training. In aerobatics Patty found ecstasy, and also purpose. Attending her first air show at Abbotsford in 1983, she saw champion aerobatic pilots perform and promised herself, “I can do that!” And by 1985, just five years after gaining her pilot’s license, she earned a spot on the US Aerobatic Team.
She trained tirelessly, often three times a day, demanding the most from herself and her airplane. Her timing was fortuitous: emerging on the aerobatic scene just as new composite materials were being developed and introduced, Patty pushed herself to the leading edge of the sport, pioneering maneuvers not previously possible, like her signature multiple vertical snap rolls.
In a field dominated by men, Patty’s accomplishments broke barriers and opened doors for other women to follow. Standing on the shoulders of the great female aviators who came before her, she took their legacy and ran with it. No woman had ever won the U.S. National Aerobatic Championships, and even other women pilots insisted it was not possible. Patty doggedly honed her skills to a razor-sharp edge and, by 1991, felt ready to face a field of more than 100 competitors at the Nationals. But on her first flight the Lexan floor-board under her rudder pedals broke, and then, as she rocked her wings to signal her trouble a wayward Cessna wandered into the aerobatic box. Though allowed a reflight, the incident devastated her concentration and meant she’d have to fly two intense competition routines on the same day. Despite these added challenges, Patty’s scores reflected 28 perfect tens to her nearest competitor’s 17, and she’d earned the gold medal in each of the three flights. Patty Wagstaff became the first woman ever to win the US National Aerobatic Championships; indeed she would go on to win the Nationals three times, three years in a row.
In addition to these U.S. Championships, Patty has six times earned a position on the US Aerobatic Team at the World Aerobatic Championships, and six times won the Betty Skelton “First Lady of Aerobatics” Award. To those who question her abilities because she is a woman, Patty responds, “Do you think the airplane knows or cares?” Patty Wagstaff knows full well, and has demonstrated to the world, that the allure of speed and motion, and the competitive realm of unlimited aerobatics, are not the exclusive province of men.
By the early 1990s the name Patty Wagstaff was becoming a household word in competitions and air shows across the U.S. as she traveled to more than 20 events per year. That recognition was cemented in 1994 when her airplane, the Goodrich Extra 260, was placed on display at the National Air and Space Museum near Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega. Patty’s airplane flies virtually as well: reaching millions of adults and children around the world on Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, the only airplane on the simulator associated with a personality.
Patty also flies as a stunt pilot for films and television and coaches other aerobatic pilots. She has provided transition training for airline and military pilots into warbirds, instructing in T-28s and T-6s, and in 2002 she was a presidential appointee to the Centennial of Flight Commission’s Federal Advisory Board. Committed to the protection of animals as she is to flying, Patty volunteers with the Kenya Wildlife Service, giving recurrency and aerobatic training to law enforcement officers patrolling for poachers of elephant tusks and rhino horns.
Patty Wagstaff has earned her position as one of modern aviation’s most recognized trailblazers and ambassadors, a woman dedicated to the sport and art of aerobatics. Her spirit and dedication have shaped her into a tough competitor and a world-class performer, earning her the air show industry’s Sword of Excellence. She carries her passion for flying to audiences everywhere, setting the standard for performers the world over, and eagerly engaging her audience at each show, inspiring young women to compete with men on equal footing, and inspiring all to set goals and pursue their dreams.
For her skill, precision, and pioneering role in modern aviation, Patty Wagstaff is hereby enshrined into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
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