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Barb MacLeod
October 31, 1997

If a fearful flyer came to you for her first flight lesson, you probably wouldn’t invite her for a spin—unless you were totally inspired, the way Barb MacLeod’s instructor must have been.

“What is a spin?” she asked. He showed her with a model. “Holy S__t!” she said to herself, but agreed to one. It is not everyone’s cure for a 30-year, terror of flying. In fact, you would not think it was anyone’s, but it proved to be her’s.

“There was a lot of ground in the window,” she says. “It was a blur.” However, in an instant the plane was back flying level again . “I couldn’t believe he was out of it, just like that. That was the marvellous part of it. After a few seconds I said, ‘Do it again.’”

He did, and a chain broke inside her that had rooted her to the ground for most of thirty years.

Her fear sprang out of a random accident—flood waters killed two canoeing friends. Before, she had been fearless—caving, climbing, back packing and canoeing. Danger was not an issue.

“But, somehow that accident shattered my veil of immortality,” she says. “I became transiently phobic, filled with dread. There was no escaping, but I felt I could improve my chances by not taking any risks.”

That didn’t last long—it couldn’t. She had always been a dare devil, a risk taker. Challenge thrilled her. In time, she reclaimed her sports, but fear remained, stuffed in a small box marked—fear of flying.

“I didn’t discover it for a couple of years,” she says, “until I had the option of a cheap plane ticket to San Francisco. I wanted to do it, but I became obsessed with the idea that the plane was going to crash. Later, the fear became more elaborate. I was certain I’d been selected for some unique torment. When I actually had to fly, I couldn’t sleep for weeks.” For 13 years she refused to get on an airplane.

She lives in Austin, where she earned her PhD. in anthropology at the University of Texas, and her work takes her around the world. She is one of the world’s leading experts on ancient Mayan grammar. In summer she teaches spoken Yucatec Maya at the University of North Carolina. Success meant flying, but she couldn’t do it.

By 1993, she had reached a crisis. The fear had to be faced. She could not ignore it, deny it, or run from it. For some reason, she began to dream about flying at night. She had to look it square in the eye.

She dug out an article she saved about fearful flyers. For the first time, she asked for help. She consulted an expert, a friend, a doctor. They had a tiny piece to give. Then, she got on an airliner for the first time in 13 years—she flew to North Carolina, then to Dallas, California and Washington. “I belong here,” she said to herself overlooking the top of an overcast. She was right.

Soon, when she wasn’t in the air, she began to miss it.

At UT, she signed up for a ground school class. That’s where she found Jim Garrett, her flight instructor. From the Air Force, he was used to gung-ho students, so he naturally he plunged her right into spins, loops, rolls, and even formation flying.

Parts of training were tough, but she loved it. By the time she earned her private license she was transformed from petrified flyer to passionate pilot.

As her gained her wings, her song writing soared. “I’ve been singer and a song writer since 1959, but I didn’t become prolific until I started flying,” she says. Her first flying song was, Grows You Up and it Grows You Down.

“Wingtip turns above the far horizon,” she sings, “Dive into a quarter roll and pull up toward the sky; Wind has brought a turning of the season; The years roll by…”

Her second was, The Long Spin.

“In Bill Kershner’s Basic Aerobatic Manual, there’s a graph of a 21 turn spin,” she says. “Although it cautions people not to do one, Jim said, he kind of would like to. I said, I would, too.

“In October 1994, we went up to 9,000 feet and did 27 turns. Afterwards, I was exhilarated. I was high for three days. I can do this! I can go and push these frontiers out of the way!

“We threw oil all over the airplane. I couldn’t see out of the left window at all. I called Bill Kershner about the oil. He provided me with a lot of useful advice, and I started getting into spins.”

During that fall and winter she climbed higher and higher in the Cessna Aerobat and did longer and longer spins—37 turns, 41, and finally in January, 1995 she did a 52 ½ turn spin. The song she wrote was, The Long Spin.. It weaves the climb, the spin, her journey with her understanding. “…The air is cold and rare now,” she sings, “and the twelve-five point has passed; my breath becomes a silent meditation; I’ve wrestled with my doubts and know our purpose here at last—To barnstorm at the gate of all creation….”

Throughout 1995 and 1996, her songwriting took off. Everything spawned material—the air traffic controller with the deep baritone—“He’s Mister Cool (wo-wo-oh); When I hear him on the radio (wo-oh), I close my eyes and fly the plane real slow…” CFI hopefuls—“I like to talk, I love to fly, I wanna be a CFI…” Even bad weather—“It’s another foggy, sodden, misty morning with a ceiling laid in ragged folds of cold gun-metal grey…”

In December of 1996, she won the International Council of Air Shows’ first Jan Jones Aerobatic Scholarship. She even had a song for that. At their banquet she sang, Roll on Red Thunder, the story of Jan’s life, death and airshow flying.
Now, she sings at airshows, parties and gatherings of pilots, and a collection of her flying songs—Barb MacLeod’s Air Circus is available from Geographic Records in Houston (713-973-7722). This month, she is finishing her instructor’s rating. By spring, she will teach in the Cessna Aerobat she magages for Bell Flight Training at the Robert Mueller Airport, in Austin. One of her specialties will be spins.

Barb has done many difficult things—faced poisonous snakes in the jungle, escaped from collapsing walls in a box canyon, earned a PhD in anthropology. Facing this fear and letting it go, was harder than any of those. It took courage, understanding and helping hands, but when she let it go, her life opened up like the sky.

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