A Fearless Love Of Flying

Pilot Wagstaff Pushes The Boundaries

When Patty Wagstaff was growing up, she liked to take chances. When she and her friends went go-carting, sheÂ'd be the fastest; when they rode horses, sheÂ'd try to make hers jump. Once she graduated to airplanes, Wagstaff pushed the limits even more, eventually becoming the first and only woman to win the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship - for three years.

Former CBS News Correspondent Edie Magnus reports on this fearless woman.

"I really had something to prove as a woman in the sport of aerobatics when I competed,Â" Wagstaff says. "The people were so brainwashed into really believing that a woman was never going to win."

Flying has been a way for Wagstaff to make history and escape the past. "It's been my salvation because I didn't have a very pleasant childhood and I had difficult, say, teen-age years and early adulthood years." she says.

"And my independence saved me. My dad was a pilot, and the best hours I'd ever spent with my father and really doing anything with him was in an airplane," she recalls.

She dreamed of being a pilot, but her family didnÂ't encourage her. "They just kind of laughed at me. My mom said, 'Patty, girls don't become pilots. You know, you're going to get married and have kids.'"

She ended up marrying a pilot who encouraged her to fly. And now she's a star at air shows all over the country. "This is a very dangerous business," says her flying partner, pilot Sean D. Tucker. "This is not 'Basket Weaving 101.'"

Stunt flying is physically demanding, she says: "People look at videotapes of me inside the cockpit and they go, 'Wow, I had no idea it was so violent, what you did.' I [say], 'Yeah, it's very, very physical. The blood's going from my feet to my head and, you know, your eyeballs get sore at the end of the day.' It's like going over a waterfall."

After looking at what she does, some say she must have a death wish. Wagstaff disagrees. "That couldn't be further from the truth," she says.

"It's not because it's close to death. It's because it's the ultimate in life," she says of flying.

How does Wagstaff face the possibility of making a mistake, given the enormous consequences? "If [I'm] doing an inverted ribbon cut and I have pole holders out there holding my poles and the ribbon's 22 feet off the ground, I don't make mistakes," she says. "I've practiced it enough that I'm not going to. And I can't allow myself to think that I am going to make a mistake."

If she's paid a price, it's been on the ground. She admits that she probably sacrificed her marriage to her obsession with flying.

But she finds peace in the sky. "Things on the ground are so difficult - relationships and people and politics and conflicts and paying bills," she says"It's so confusing. And it's so complicated. And when I get up in the airplane, it all makes sense. It's a release and it's freedom. And, yeah, sometimes it's the only place I'm really happy.Â"

In 1994, after she had logged more than 5,000 hours in the air, the Smithsonian devoted an exhibit to Wagstaff. "I'm kind of humbled by the whole thing," she says. "I'm in such good company: [Charles] Lindbergh, Jimmy Doolittle, Amelia Earhart and me."

Produced by David Kohn;