Learning To Fly: Flight Attendant Is MGA’s Oldest Female Flight Student

Author: Sheron Smith
Posted: Monday, November 23, 2020 12:00 AM
Categories: Pressroom | Students | School of Aviation

Macon, GA

Cristi Horne during a flight training session. She is working on her degree in aviation science and management from MGA and gets most of her flight instruction at the School of Aviation’s satellite location at Macon Downtown Airport. She is a member of Women in Aviation International & the Georgia Flying Belles of the 99s. She does volunteer fundraising with Professional Pilots of Tomorrow, a nonprofit that matches people on their aviation journey with professional airline pilot mentors.

Cristi Horne was in the early days of her career as a flight attendant when she began toying with an idea many people might have found ludicrous: maybe she could learn to fly commercial aircraft, not just tend to the safety and comfort of the passengers in them.

It wasn’t that flight attendants couldn’t become pilots. It wasn’t because Horne had only been on the job for a year or so. What made the idea seem so impractical was, quite frankly, her age. Horne was 47 when she became a flight attendant and here she was pushing 50. 

But she couldn’t shake the idea, especially each time she took a turn in the flight deck while on duty. Since 9/11, whenever one of the pilots on an airline flight wants to step out for a restroom break or get something to drink, another qualified member of the flight crew, which can include a flight attendant, must enter the flight deck (cockpit), lock the door, and remain until the pilot returns. 

“So I get to see firsthand what airline pilots do,” Horne said. “It’s fascinating.”

She began asking the pilots for their opinions. Was she too old to learn to fly if her ultimate goal was to become an airline pilot? Horne lacked a college degree, and major airlines require their pilots to have them. Even if she managed to earn a degree and become a licensed pilot, she would have to first fly for a regional airline. Only then, assuming she remained healthy and met all the qualifications, could she become a pilot for a major airline.

But she would have to retire at age 65 due to FAA regulations. She could possibly do other things in aviation after that, but she couldn’t fly passenger jets for any of the major airlines. 

Most of the pilots she spoke with acknowledged her path would be easier if she was younger, but they encouraged her to follow her heart. Her final decision came after she asked one of them, a woman, “Would you go through all of that if you knew you could only fly for (a major airline) for five years?”

“Absolutely,” the pilot replied.

So Horne, who lives in Byron, began exploring Middle Georgia State University, home to the state’s only public four-year School of Aviation.

First, she took one of the “discovery” flights the school offers to prospective students to help them determine how serious they are about learning to fly.  Then she began the application process.  Horne had no previous college credits and had to invest time in studying for a placement test, which she eventually took and passed. Sorting through financial aid red tape to see if she qualified – she did - also took time. Later she applied for and received some scholarship money so her goal became more financially viable.

Finally, in summer 2019, Horne began her bachelor’s degree in aviation science and management with a concentration in flight. Now 52, she is the University’s oldest female flight student – only six in total are above the age of 47 - and she is the only one currently working as a flight attendant.

“I have a very strong faith, and before I started I told God, ‘If you open the door I will give it my best,’” Horne said. “God did open the door, so that’s what I’m doing.”

We could stop right here and this would still be a great story. But there is more to tell.

From Mission Work to Flying

Born in North Carolina, Cristi Wray grew up mostly in Mississippi and Texas. In 1990, when she was 22 years old, she married Ollie Horne of Macon. He was a police officer at the time but over the years her husband primarily focused on a career as a Christian minister. 

The couple had four children – three boys and a girl. While the children were young, Cristi Horne homeschooled them. Later she juggled a series of part-time jobs, started her own business, trained as a labor doula (birth assistant), and helped her husband at the churches he served.

In the mid-2000s, the Horne family moved to Kiev, Ukraine, to serve as missionaries. As is common in this kind of ministry, their financial support came mostly through donations made by fellow Christians. 

Around 2007, the economy was entering what became known as the Great Recession. “The financial support dried up,” Cristi Horne said. “My parents lived in the Byron area, so we joined them there.”

Back in the states, Ollie Horne found church jobs hard to come by in the struggling economy. He saw an online ad where one of the major airlines was recruiting flight attendants and, on a whim, applied. After navigating a grueling interview process he found himself in a brand new career. Cristi Horne said the airline considered her husband’s previous experience in law enforcement to be a plus for a flight attendant.

“He told me, ‘I’m just going to do this until something else comes along,’” she said. “But once he started flying he loved it. He wound up working as an assistant pastor at our church while still working for” the airline.

Ollie Horne loved his new career so much that his wife decided she would apply to become a flight attendant once their youngest child was out of high school. The two looked forward to new adventures and working together again.

Those plans collapsed in 2012 when Ollie Horne suffered a series of seizures while preparing to board a flight in Lagos, Nigeria. He was hospitalized there for several days before being transferred to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, where specialists diagnosed him with stage four brain cancer.

He began a treatment regimen that included chemo, radiation, and three surgeries. He continued working as a flight attendant whenever he felt strong enough, and his church raised money to help the family pay medical bills and meet other needs.

After a two-year ordeal, Ollie Horne died in April 2014. He and Cristi had been married for 23 years. Their children were 10, 13, 18, and 22 years old.

“I almost didn’t know how to function without him,” Cristi Horne said. “I still had two children who lived at home. I tried to keep things normal for them but I knew I was going to have to get a full-time job.”

The airline her husband worked for had been so good to the family during his illness that she decided to go ahead with the career plan she had made with him. In 2016, she applied and was hired as a flight attendant for the same airline.

“I was super excited to have an opportunity within a company that already meant so much to me,” she said. “My youngest was 13 at the time and well adjusted, and while it was difficult to be gone so much, I was so thankful for the job.”

Different Perspectives

The majority of flight students in the U.S. are in their 20s and 30s, but a surprising number – about 13.5 percent of the total – are age 50 and older, according to FAA data as reported by Pilot Institute. Older flight students usually have to work harder at certain aspects of their training when compared to their younger, often more tech-savvy counterparts, but they add value to the close-knit community of pilots in training.

“I like having a diverse group of students in our program – by age, race, and gender,” said Adon Clark, dean of MGA’s School of Aviation. “Everybody brings different perspectives and life experiences to the table and that helps students learn from each other. In the case of older students in our program, they usually have already built careers in other areas but they have a passion to try something new and are willing to put in the hard work to get there. In that respect they can be and often are good role models for other students.”

Horne demonstrated her tenacity to MGA’s younger flight students when she struggled to learn a particular landing technique. Her instructor, who is young enough to be her son, came up with several strategies to help her while younger classmates offered advice and encouragement. After Horne mastered the technique, everybody celebrated with her.

She’s faced other challenges, including trying to manage the sometimes exhausting grind of coursework and training while holding down a full-time job. Another test came during her first solo flight, when red lights suddenly began flashing and an “alternator fail” alarm on the instrument panel sounded. 

“I didn’t panic,” said Horne, who learned after setting the plane down that the alarm had malfunctioned - the alternator itself was good. “When I landed, though, I was drenched in sweat.”

Relief came quickly through a bucket of cold water. The “solo dunk” is a tradition in aviation where flight instructors or fellow students pour water over the heads of pilots-in-training after their first solo flights. On Horne’s Facebook page is a photo of a fellow student pouring water on her as she stands on the tarmac of Macon Downtown Airport - a School of Aviation satellite location where she gets most of her hands-on flight training - next to the Piper Archer she’d just landed.

Come spring, Horne will begin her sophomore year at MGA. She remains a full-time flight attendant, so to accommodate her work schedule she takes as many of her non-flight courses online as possible. 

Meanwhile, Horne’s children are thriving. Her two oldest sons are working their way through college and pursuing engineering or science-related careers. Another son is applying to a training program to be a heavy equipment diesel mechanic. Her daughter, the youngest, is finishing high school while dually enrolled at MGA. Her oldest son and his wife recently had a baby, a boy, making Horne a first-time grandmother.

“I get up every day and count my blessings,” she said.

Occasionally, while working as a flight attendant, Horne runs into someone who remembers her late husband from his time at the airline. She thinks of him every day and knows he would be proud of her and their children.

“It’s going to take me another four or five years of extremely hard work, but I am determined to make it,” she said. “A winner is just a loser who tried one more time.”