UW News

September 11, 2020

‘Dancing in the sky’: UW professor Cecilia Aragon tells of beating fear, becoming competitive pilot in memoir ‘Flying Free’

UW News

Cecilia Aragon flies her custom-built air show plane, a Sabre 320, over San Francisco bay. Aragon has published a memoir, "Flying Free: My Victory Over Fear to Become to the First Latina Pilot on the US Aerobatic Team."

Cecilia Aragon flies her custom-built air show plane, a Sabre 320, over San Francisco bay. Aragon has published a memoir, “Flying Free: My Victory Over Fear to Become to the First Latina Pilot on the US Aerobatic Team.”Katinka Rodriguez


In the space of a few years, Cecilia Aragon went from being a self-doubting, decidedly Earthbound dreamer to become a pilot, then a teacher of flying, and then the first Latina pilot on the United States Aerobatic Team — an honor akin to competing in the Olympics.

Aragon writes of this evolution in her engaging new memoir, “Flying Free: My Victory Over Fear to Become the First Latina Pilot on the US Aerobatic Team,” published this month by Blackstone Publishing. An audiobook version of the book is also available.

A professor of human-centered design and engineering and a member of the eScience Institute at the University of Washington, Aragon directs the Human-Centered Data Science Lab. She came to the UW in 2010.

Cover of "Flying Free" by Cecilia AragonThe daughter of a Chilean father and a Filipina mother, Aragon — then Cecilia Rodriguez — writes in “Flying Free” that she grew up misunderstood by teachers and stalked by a schoolyard bully. Fascinated by flying, she loved and excelled at math, which felt like a sort of personal superpower: “I could see geometric patterns laid out before me,” Aragon writes. “Mathematical induction seemed like a magic way of proving theorems like the domino effect.”

That flight-obsessed child did learn to fly airplanes with the help of a series of teachers. And when she took to the air, Aragon writes, it felt “like a three-dimensional dance in the sky.” In time, Aragon became a professional aerobatic pilot and certified flight instructor.

UW Notebook caught up with Aragon to ask a few questions about the memoir and her experiences as a competitive pilot.

“Flying Free” book events:

  • Virtual book launch 7 p.m. Sept. 22 with Third Place Books — A conversation with memoir writing teacher Theo Nestor. Learn more.
  • UW Bookstore event, 6 p.m., Oct. 14. Register.

You have a very clear voice as a writer. How did you develop it, and your style of memoir writing?  

Cecilia Aragon: Thank you! They say the best way to develop a writer’s voice is simply through practice. I’ve been writing prose narrative since I was 4 years old. Of course, as an academic, writing clearly and concisely and knowing how to tell a story are critical. It’s also said, “The first million words are the hardest.” I estimate I’ve written over two million words of prose, including fiction, narrative nonfiction, and academic articles.

But I also have to give credit to UW Continuum College’s Certificate in Memoir Writing. I took a year-long course with the incredibly skilled instructor Theo Nestor. Not only did the class shape the form of my memoir, but it also enabled me to complete an entire first draft during my coursework. Sadly, UW no longer offers this certificate, but fortunately Theo Nestor is now teaching a yearlong class in memoir writing at Hugo House that I highly recommend.

[Editor’s note: UW Continuum College continues to offer memoir writing as part of its writing curriculum. In fact, the next class of “Memoir Writing: Finding Your Story” begins online on Sept. 30. Learn more and register.]

Pilot and flying teacher Cecilia Aragon at a small airfield in Indiana.

This story is about you facing fears. But you also faced bias and misogyny at times. How much harder did that make your journey? 

C.A.: Bias and misogyny will make anyone’s journey much harder. That’s why I’m so glad this book is coming out now, during a time of growing awareness of systemic racism and its corrosive effects, particularly on young people.

I became a professor in large part because I wanted to give students today the kind of encouragement that my father, also a professor, gave his students in physics. Having a single voice of support can make all the difference, no matter how much discouragement you face. My father’s support gave me strength to fight my fears. I think any of us can be a mentor today and do the same thing for a young person in our life. Just help one person to reach their true potential — that’s all it takes.

You quote an instructor saying, “The cockpit is a lousy classroom.” What did that mean? 

C.A.: For a new flight student, being at the controls of an aircraft is a noisy, confusing, and frightening environment. Being terrified and confused is not conducive to learning.

What that instructor meant is that you need to teach flight techniques on the ground and learn them there, in a calmer environment. Then you go up into the air to practice what you’ve already mastered on the ground.

A few flying terms… 

Cecilia Aragon has lots of great aviation terms in her memoir “Flying Free.” UW Notebook asked the meaning of a few:

Taildragger: Most planes have three landing gears.Taildraggers earn their moniker from having the third landing gear located at the tail instead of the nose (hence, “tailwheel” rather than “nosewheel”). This is an older style of plane, a more classic design. It’s more challenging to land, but in many pilots’ eyes, a more elegant design.

Turtledeck: This is the small storage area behind the pilot seat in the fuselage of certain types of small planes. It’s named that because the top is rounded like the back of a turtle to conform to the streamlined shape of the fuselage. It’s also apt because a pilot traveling cross-country to shows and contests in a single-seat aerobatic plane has to carry their entire set of baggage along with them, the way a turtle carries its shell. This is how I learned to pack extremely light! Today, I can go on a month-long international conference trip with only a single very small carry-on bag.

Wind dummy: The pilot unlucky enough to draw the number one position in the order of flight at a contest is affectionately dubbed the “wind dummy.” The winds at altitude are frequently different than on the ground. Watching the pilot flying ahead of you is one of the most effective ways of gauging the wind for your turn in the box. Correcting for wind is one of the most important skills a competition aerobatic pilot can master.

* * *

Coming coauthors: Aragon’s co-authors in her coming introductory textbook, “Human-Centered Data Science: An Introduction,” are Shion Guha of Marquette University, Marina Kogan of the University of Utah, Michael Muller of Princeton University and Gina Neff of the University of Oxford.

Your parents went from being worried for you and disapproving of aerobatic flying to being proud, with your dad saying his “buttons were popping.” What changed their view?

C.A.: At first my parents didn’t really understand what I was doing. They both had negative images of aviation from their experiences during World War II, and they both personally witnessed small aircraft crashing at early airshows in the 1930s and ’40s. I was able to explain to them how seriously I took safety, and how the technology had improved since their childhoods. They also came to watch my aerobatic flying at shows and contests, and there they were able to see that I wasn’t thrill-seeking but was performing a dance in the air that required precision and grace.

When they realized I was competing in a serious sport and understood that it took dedication and skill to do what I did, they changed their minds. I also think they experienced some visceral feelings of pride when they witnessed me winning first-place trophies at contests and seeing all those people applauding.

Before taking off, you remove all keys and coins from your pocket and stow them. Even a dropped quarter or nickel, you write, can have severe consequences for a pilot. What can happen?

C.A.: Any small, hard object left loose inside an aerobatic cockpit can be dangerous. The reason is that during aerobatics, objects fly around, and they usually end up in the tail section, where the mechanisms for moving the control surfaces — the movable parts of the plane that steer it through the air — are located.

Cecilia Aragon flies her custom-made Sabre 320 upside-down near Tracy, California.Katinka Rodriguez

Once I was taxiing out to the runway before a flight when I realized I couldn’t move the elevator — the part of the plane that pitches the nose up or down. Obviously, that would be a problem in the air! I immediately taxied back to the hangar and inspected the tail section. There I found a nickel wedged in the elevator bellcrank. The nickel was actually bent from the force that had been applied to it. If I hadn’t discovered it on the ground, it’s possible I wouldn’t have been able to control the plane in the air.

I suspect that nickel ended up in my cockpit during a previous weekend’s fly-in exhibition, where pilots left their planes out on the tarmac for the public to view. Perhaps I missed someone leaning over my plane to show off the cockpit to their child, and accidentally dropping the nickel. I’m sure they thought it was no big deal.

You benefited from the kindnesses of friends and strangers both. How did the flying community change the way you view people, and your ability to trust others?  

C.A.: I admit that growing up as the daughter of immigrants in Indiana made me fearful of strangers. People who didn’t know me often judged me by my name, my ethnicity, or my parents’ accents. After you see people refusing to serve you in stores or pulling their house off the market when your parents make an offer, you tend to grow distrustful.

The flying community was wonderful.  I experienced acceptance by most people for my accomplishments as a pilot rather than the color of my skin or hair. I was welcomed into this community in a way I had rarely experienced before. There were so many astonishing incidents of kindness, some of which I detail in the book, too many to list here, but suffice it to say that the combined effect of this outpouring of approval helped relieve this inner, unconscious defensiveness that I’d held for years.

You see, as a young person, my instinctive response to meeting anyone was to panic and go into high alert. After years of being welcomed by the aviation community, that changed. I learned to internalize an expectation that most people were going to give me the benefit of the doubt and were going to treat me well. An individual act of kindness, someone going out of their way for me, went a long way to healing those old wounds.

Do you still fly? And what’s next for you as a writer?  

 C.A.: I still fly — I don’t think I could ever give it up — but not with the intensity and frequency described in “Flying Free.” I teach basic aerobatics when my work and the Pacific Northwest weather permit, and I occasionally take my family flying to some beautiful local airports.

My next academic book, a co-authored introductory textbook on human-centered data science, will be released by MIT Press in 2021. And I’m also working on a second memoir, although this one may end up becoming an autobiographical novel.