August 1984. Marblehead, Massachusetts. I was sitting on the beach contemplating my career options. I had just graduated from college with a degree in East Asian Studies and fluency in Chinese, but now I faced the dilemma I’d been forewarned about—where to get a job using my at-that-time obscure skill. Someone even asked me once, “What are you going to do with that? Work in a firecracker factory?”
Don’t get me wrong. I loved what I studied, but the only way to get a job using it back then (besides working in a firecracker factory) was to get a law degree or a masters in business and then hope for an opportunity. Or, I could go back to Taiwan where I’d spent my junior year studying and teach English for ten dollars an hour. The prospects of a career in law or business were less than inspiring, and since I’d made my life choices thus far in my short time on earth according to what inspired me, that wouldn’t work. No, not for me.
At that moment, a small airplane flew over the beach and grabbed my attention. That was it! Years earlier I’d promised myself I would learn to fly. That tiny plane buzzing overhead changed my life in an instant. I would take flying lessons and work my way up to the airlines. This would be my new career path. To this day, I can still feel the excitement of that moment.
It wasn’t that my love of China and all things Chinese was forgotten. Not at all. Before my first flying lesson in December 1984, I went back to Taiwan for four months. Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not coincidentally, while there I met a fighter pilot in the Taiwan Air Force, Major Mao Yisheng, and we had a steamy affair. Looking back now, I’m pretty sure the affair was more with my new love of aviation than with Major Mao, but it sure got me fired up.
When I returned home from Taiwan the week before Christmas, I immediately scheduled my first flying lesson at the local airport in Beverly, Massachusetts. I also went into Boston to meet with a Navy recruiter because even before the movie Top Gun came out, everyone knew Navy flight training was the pinnacle.
So, two days after Christmas, I took my first lesson. For sixty five dollars an hour in a 1960s vintage Piper Cherokee 140, I began climbing the aviation ladder.