They say you’re never too old to learn new things, and Clover Lick resident Jeanne Castellini took that to heart in 2018 when she, at age 70, decided to get her private pilot’s license.
Castellini is no stranger to planes. Her husband, Dan, has been a licensed pilot for more than 40 years – and the pair own an A36 Beachcraft Bonanza, which they often use to visit their children in Iowa, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Castellini’s friends had been telling her she needed to get her license, but what changed her mind was learning about a harrowing experience a Florida friend had while flying.
“When he was flying back to his home with his wife, he had a heart attack,” Castellini said. “He was able to land the plane, but ended up having surgery and three stents were put in. After I heard about him, I thought maybe I should learn to land the plane and walk away alive. God forbid if anything ever happened to Dan, I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Last February, while the couple was at their home in Florida, Castellini signed up for lessons at the Treasure Coast Flight School and worked diligently toward receiving her pilot’s license.
“I flew with an instructor at least three days a week for two hours each day,” she said. “The first step is to be able to fly an airplane and know what all the instruments are for. The next step is to be able to land the airplane, which is not an easy task. That is the hardest thing to accomplish, to be able to land a plane. It doesn’t look hard but it is very difficult. To other people, it comes so easy, but not for me. It took me awhile.”
Learning to land was frustrating for Castellini, but her personal cheerleaders kept her going with their support.
“I had other pilots tell me, ‘that is the hardest thing to do; it took me a long time to be able to do it – don’t give up,’” she said. “After I did maybe three or four take offs and landings, it got better. It’s hard to get the feel for it – what to look for.”
The couple returned to Pocahontas County in April, and Castellini signed up to finish her flying lessons with Green Bank native Phillip Doolittle, who worked with her in Green Bank and at the Elkins-Randolph County Regional Airport.
Doolittle helped Castellini get prepared to fly without his assistance and in August, she went up in the plane alone and landed, alone.
“[Phillip] got out of the plane, and he and my husband watched me do three take-offs and landings by myself,” she said, excitedly. “I was very nervous, but was so excited I did it on my own.”
While taking lessons, Castellini was also studying for the Federal Aviation Administration [FAA] written test. The test has a database of 700 questions and each test taker is given 60 of those on the exam. To pass the exam, you must receive 70 percent or higher.
“I didn’t want to fail – that would mean more studying,” Castellini said. “I didn’t have to worry about failing because I passed with 85 percent.
After the test, Castellini had to take two cross country flights on her own.
“I had to map out the route, how long it would take and how much fuel I would burn,” she said. “The first cross country was sixty-five nautical miles – Elkins airport to Lewisburg airport and back to Elkins. My second one was 150 nautical miles. I flew from Elkins to Wheeling to Parkersburg and back to Elkins.”
She also had to have at least three hours of night flying with 10 take-offs and landings.
“Everything is so different at night,” she said. “You don’t have any of your ground references. I didn’t have to do this by myself – my instructor was with me, thank goodness. [Night flying] is not my favorite thing, but if I had to, I could do it.”
Castellini’s last task was to take a check ride with FFA Flight Examiner Don Judy at the Elkins airport. The final exam consisted of an oral test, and a flight in a 172 Cessna, which included several air maneuvers and an emergency landing.
Ninety minutes after the test began, Castellini landed the plane and waited anxiously for Judy’s verdict.
“[He] asked me to taxi back to the ramp,” she recalled. “You still don’t know if you failed or passed. When you shut down the airplane, that’s when you know. I was so excited to hear, ‘Congratulations, you passed.’ I am now a private pilot.”
You’re never too old to try new things.
“This is a major accomplishment, and I’m so excited to be a safety pilot when my husband and I fly together,” she said. “It’s never too late to learn new things, no matter what your age is. It’s only a number!”
With that said, you wonder what is next for Castellini. The sky is no longer the limit, but she has confirmed that the sea is.
“I have no desire to learn how to drive a boat,” she said. “My husband is a captain. He has a captain’s license for a boat, but no, this is the extent of my venturing out of my comfort zone.”