Vicky Kuo, 46, Flight instructor
Children Danielle, 24; Elena, 23; Tina, 20; Christopher, 16
Hometown Cranston, Rhode Island
Vicky Kuo was 5 years old when she went on her first plane ride. "I felt like I was in heaven skirting the tops of the clouds," she says. Back then, though, she didn't know there was another way to fly besides being a passenger. She entered college when she was 16 to pursue her parents' dream of her becoming a doctor. At 22, she married and suspended her full-time studies, became a lab researcher at a university hospital and started a family. She told herself that once her youngest was in kindergarten, she could begin training again to become a physician. That plan was derailed when her third daughter was born. "If I went to medical school, they would have no mom," she says. "The children came first."
UP IN THE AIR
In 2005 Vicky's kids, then ages 8 to 17, were still her main focus. Her flexible researcher's schedule allowed her to ferry them to early morning swim practice and music lessons, and still prepare dinner every night. While her discoveries about Alzheimer's disease were recognized, the work seemed repetitive. Alone in her lab, Vicky felt cut off from the world. In her mind she hadn't succeeded as a doctor. And though to outsiders she and her husband looked like the perfect couple, they had grown apart. "I felt like a failure at everything," Vicky says. "It took all I had to do my job."
Realizing Vicky was unhappy, her husband surprised her with a gift certificate for flying lessons. Immediately Vicky began reading one of the textbooks that accompanied the gift -- then snapped it shut and put it away. "It looked overwhelming," she remembers. "And I'd had enough of school." But nine months later, Vicky changed her mind. "I thought, 'Instead of burying yourself in books, just fly.' " It took only one time behind the controls of a plane for her to become hooked. "It's this sense of freedom and an adrenaline rush that comes from defying gravity," she says. "The need to get back up in the air was so strong I scheduled a flight for the following day."
That November, after consulting her family, she quit her job and began training to become a pilot. "It was a huge leap," Vicky says. "Either I was going to fail or I was going to make it."
BACK TO EARTH
Vicky delved right in, but studying up to eight hours a day for her pilot's license took a toll. Her already shaky marriage crumbled further, and the kids weren't used to not having her full attention. "I wasn't the perfect mother anymore," says Vicky, who felt so guilty that she considered returning to the lab. "It was a rocky time emotionally," she says. "I needed to talk to someone to let out my anxieties." A consultation with a life coach convinced Vicky that she was entitled to take time for herself. But despite all their efforts, Vicky and her husband divorced in 2007. "We had tried for years to make the marriage work," she says. "Whether I flew or not, it would have happened."
Earning an instrument license allowed Vicky to fly. Gaining her commercial license in 2008 enabled her to start teaching at Horizon Aviation in Providence, where she had trained. In 2011 Vicky was named chief flight instructor. "I was ecstatic," Vicky says, and she was thrilled to be able to pass on her love of flying to her students. "People come in here with a dream, and it's my job to empower them the way I was empowered."
Now on good terms with her ex-husband, Vicky is grateful for his gift that allowed her to take wing. Don't drive yourselves too hard, she tells her children. Instead, leave room to discover your dreams. "They've seen the hard work, the stress and the achievement," she says. Vicky believes that if her parents had shared their failures as well as successes, she might have found her own passion sooner. "The exhilaration I experience every day when a plane takes off is almost indescribable," she says. "I've become the person I'd always wanted to be -- it's a wonderful feeling."