Erika Armstrong: published author, journalist, pilot, professor, aviation consultant, entrepreneur and, most importantly, a mother. One might ask, how can a person fit so many accomplishments into one lifetime? After interviewing this intelligent and gentle woman, the answer became clear: Erika has a wildly tenacious spirit and a fierce independence that was cultivated early on in life.
Adopted at birth in Seattle, Washington, Erika and her new family soon moved to Minnesota, where she spent the rest of her childhood. Her adopted father was an airline pilot and was gone all the time. “As soon as he got home from one trip, he’d change his clothes and leave because he also had an investment property way up in northern Minnesota,” Erika recalls. Over time, his absence led to divorce and her mother was left to parent Erika and her baby sister. Unfortunately, her adopted mom suffered from depression and was incapable of being an effective provider. Erika remembers being a latchkey kid at the age of 9. While her mom worked as a cashier at the local grocery store, Erika was off riding her red, 10-speed Schwinn everywhere to escape her dismal home life. She cooked their meals, tended to the household, went to school, and the weekend after she graduated high school, left home.
At the tender age of 17, Erika was living in an apartment with a few friends and attending the University of Minnesota. She worked two jobs to pay for school and rent. In her third year of college, she needed to take on an additional job to make ends meet. Due to the unique hours offered, she took a position at a small general aviation airport and was bit by the flying bug. She needed to make a huge life decision: pay to take flying lessons or finish college. The next week she was immersed in the flight training program and never looked in the rearview mirror.
She spent hundreds of hours (many unpaid) and five long years earning her commercial pilot’s license. It’s important to mention that only 3 percent of pilots were women back then. She encountered (and pushed back on) the regular chauvinistic atmosphere and daily discrimination to fight for her time in the air. Over time, Erika’s innate drive earned her an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, a Citation 500 series and Boeing 727 type ratings. She walked away with experience in 28 different types of aircraft before she went to work at the airlines.
Soon after becoming the newest female pilot of Northwest Airlines in the Champion Air division, Erika met her husband (now ex). He was an airplane mechanic but chose to quit his job to be the stay-at-home parent. It wasn’t long before he asked Erika to quit her job as a pilot. A heinous domestic violence incident ensued that would take away her career. Without going into more detail, the tumultuous marriage became the pivotal point in Erika’s memoir, “A Chick In the Cockpit,” a best-selling true story of how a level-headed, self-deprecating woman with an aviation addiction finds herself in jail, her baby ripped from her arms, her piloting career taken away, and every feasible exit leads to a very dark place.
Erika soon discovered that the erratic schedule of a commercial pilot did not coalesce with being a single parent. Focused on raising her girls, she found other less demanding ways to work within the aviation industry. She completed her international business degree with a minor in journalism and began freelance writing for dozens of aviation magazines. Advanced Aircrew Academy, an internationally renowned pilot training company, hired Erika as Director of Instructional Design to create e-Learning curriculum for 500 flight departments and 30,000 pilots around the world.
With her positive reputation growing, Erika was invited to an aviation dinner hosted by Governor Hickenlooper. It was there she had a chance meeting with the president of Metro State University, who asked her if she’d be interested in teaching some aviation courses. She gladly accepted and found educating young pilots extremely gratifying, yet time-consuming. Within a few years, she was recruited to work for Boeing as a lead trainer and sales rep where she continues to work today while keeping up with her aviation journalism.
Erika’s perseverance to grow as an individual, develop her career and simultaneously support her family is quite remarkable. Here’s a woman who chose the route of positive focus and determination after having been “raised” by absent parents and enduring an awful divorce. Her life could have gone in a whole different direction. Erika believes her early independence served her later in life. “While I didn’t recognize it then, I now see how their lack of parenting actually taught me more about the life I didn’t want and set a fire within me to succeed,” she says.
What’s your next passion project?
I’d like to utilize The Meyer Ranch House (also called the Midway House) in Conifer on Highway 285 and turn it into an aviation museum to honor Norm and his legacy. Maybe host a few classes there, expose kids to aviation and educate the community on the history of the land.
What is your biggest accomplishment to date?
Being a functional mom during a really bad divorce; not letting it swallow me. Oh, and writing a book.
What is the last book you read?
“Origin” by Dan Brown.
Last TV show you binged?
What makes you smile?
My girls’ sense of humor and my pups at the foot of my bed.
When was the last time you danced?
Yesterday, while I cooked dinner. I have a great playlist.