YORK, Pa. (AP) — As we begin to lift off the ground, the power of a single propeller blade rattles the three of us inside the cockpit. As we ascended a few hundred feet off the ground, my insides have remained anchored to my spine.
It's a moment of perspective. I look out my window and see the silhouette of the one-ton helicopter we're sitting in reflect off the surface of Lake Redman. We look like a pebble in comparison.
I'm grabbing an exposed bar between the bucket seats of the cockpit, my knuckles white from the tension in my grip, and the silver-haired Judith Redlawsk looks my direction and assures me, "When you see me get nervous, then you can get nervous."
She's been in the air since she was 10.
A pilot's life is the life for me
The 68-year-old Redlawsk grew up outside of the Midway Airport in Chicago. Her parents were both educators, often fueling her curiosity and nature with "Natural Geographic" magazines.
She'd watch the planes come and go outside her window. The proximity of Runway 31 to the Congreve residence acted as a catalyst for her aviation affinity.
"My mother would always say I learned how to tell time by watching those aircraft," Redlawsk said.
Splitting her time between her mother's native Fremont, Nebraska in the summer and her winters in Chicago, Redlawsk's passion for planes began during one of those summer trips.
In a Cessna 172, she helped her great uncle chase a herd of buffalo outside Valentine, Nebraska.
"I was 10," she says.
It was then she knew what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
At 14, she had her mother sign off on her working papers so she could begin working as a mechanic's helper at Midway Airport. She'd exchange her working hours for air time, she said. By the time she was 16, she had already accumulated over 100 hours of airtime. She got her pilot license that same year. Fittingly, once she was 18 and 23, she obtained her commercial and air transport licensees, respectively.
In her 20s she would trade in the small Cessna 150 planes she trained on as a teenager for a DC-8, a 4-engine airliner jet. According to United Airlines, she was the first female pilot to complete training for the DC-8, she said.
"I was always fascinated with flying. Thought all I could be was a flight attendant," she said.
From there, Redlawsk's atypical journey would take another turn. During a routine stop in Wilmington with her travel club, Pegasus International, she'd meet Bernie Redlawsk, the chief pilot for Harsco.
She recalled that Harsco had a HS125 business jet in the hangar at Atlantic Aviation Airport that was getting a new windscreen. Problem was, Bernie needed another pilot to get the plane back to Harrisburg. He learned about Judith's experience flying DC-8s, phoned the insurance companies and told them "I've got a girl in the jump seat who's been flying DC-8s," and 15 minutes later the pair landed in Harrisburg.
Judith would take those 900 seconds and turn it into a part-time job, later a full-time gig and now the title of director of aviation services for Harsco.
That Wilmington-Harrisburg flight wouldn't just be the launch pad for Judith's career with Harsco. Many years later, it would turn into a marriage with Bernie.
'Never forget where you came from'
If you ask Judith what drives her she'll tell you that the core of her being is divided into four parts: "faith, family, my work and my community service . I think when you contribute to all those, you're well balanced and (life) is very fulfilling."
It is through her community service that I first heard about Judith. She would be giving the commencement speech in front of the 2019 graduating class at the Forum in Harrisburg on Friday, May 3, in addition to being awarded an honorary degree.
Since the 1980s, she's been involved with Central Penn helping create a stewardess co-op program between the college and Harsco. Her aim was to help create more fluid opportunities for people aiming for a career in aviation. She'd later serve as a board member for 25 years.
A similar target led her toward the U.S. Coast Guard. After being introduced to active duty cadets during a sailing and seamanship course at Harrisburg Area Community College, she learned about the Coast Guard's auxiliary unit.
She recalls in the '60s the military wouldn't let women fly, and she had long given up on her goal to fly with the flag until the Coast Guard opportunity arrived and then she thought, "Well, now I can fly."
She would serve as an instructor with the Coast Guard, training cadets nationally for nearly four years. Redlawsk still serves as an aircraft commander, flight instructor and flight examiner for the USCG, but she now limits herself, leading instruction usually once a month.
When asked why she still sees a need to give back and help teach, she said, "You're not going to have this job forever. Never forget where you came from and give young people a chance."
She is constantly talking about life lessons and things she's experienced," her stepson David Redlawski said. "She really kind of has that teacher's gift of bringing to life interesting experience and knowledge, and I think that has been an important part of who she is."
Yet, it's the family portion of that quartet that has kept her grounded - at least for brief bursts between flights.
Finding a family, flying to new heights
Judith met Bernie in 1975, but the pair wouldn't marry until decades later. Bernie's first wife passed and Judith, who had always been close with Bernie's children, began to develop a stronger connection with him and his three children.
During a birthday party, Judith recalls a moment after the couple's extended family, friends and guests had left, Bernie placed a ring. The same ring she wears today on a table.
"He set this ring on the table and said, 'So aren't you going to ask me to marry ya,'" she said.
It was, as she recalled, at that moment that Bernie's eldest son David informed her they had been planning it for years. Her stepdaughter Nancy chimed in, "You've been my mother since I was 12 ... how could you say no to a ready-made family?"
Unfortunately, Bernie would be diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1997. He was given six months. The pair visited a doctor in Houston.
"We turned 6 months into 8 years," Redlawsk said with a smile.
During those 8 years is when Redlawsk purchased a two-seat R22 Robinson for Judith as a birthday present. Bernie found it in the Poconos and the two drove up together to inspect it.
"He drove the car back and I flew the helicopter (home)," she said.
The two would later trade in that used R22 for a brand-new, four-seat R44, which they had assembled in Torrance, California and the pair flew the copter back home to Etters, Pennsylvania.
They had the No. 1 and the letters "B'' and "J'' are painted on the wing of the chopper.
"The one is for the first (helicopter), the 'B' is for my husband ... and 'J' for Judith," she said. "I feel like he is always with me when I'm flying."
Despite learning how to fly a chopper "through negative motivation," Redlawsk fell in love with the experience. She began flying helicopters in 1984.
"If I was going to be marketable in the northeast, there was a lot of people who were dual rated," she said. "I never realized how much doggone fun it was. It was like one of the last freedoms in aviation."
That freedom is something she's always chased, whether intentional or not. Her stepson David recalls her need for speed.
"She always had Corvette cars," he said. "It was like she is going to fly in the air, she is going to fly on the ground (too)."
But for a woman who has had a defined career trajectory, it was not without its hardships. But you'll be hard-pressed to hear Judith reminisce about her time as a stewardess or the times a less experienced male pilot was hired over her. Instead, she smiles and keeps moving forward.
"I'm fortunate to live my dream," she said. "Once people realized I was serious about what I was doing, they start to take you seriously."
She now flies approximately 700 times a year on top of managing Harsco aviation division, which means overseeing the scheduled flights and ensuring Harsco pilots have the appropriate hotel accommodations.
Although the job is not without its perks. She gets to park her R44 next to the Harsco jets in the hangar. "She is a pampered brat," Redlawsk says looking at the blue chopper.
We touch back on the ground. Redlawsk helps usher us out of her baby blue bird and back off the runway. As we begin saying our goodbyes, I can't help but look at a woman twice my age, who hasn't batted an eyelash when it came to chasing her goals. While I was up in the air, holding onto a bucket seat for dear life, she remained her unwavering self - molded by the same conviction she's held inside her for the last 60 years.
My photographer and I look up at the sky and see a pack of storm clouds crashing into the gentle, white puffs that decorated the sky when we landed. I look back across the runway, watching her climb back into a 1,500-pound helicopter unfazed by the encroaching clouds.
In the air, she's at home.
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com