Linda Dowdy took the controls of an airplane for the first time when she was 47 years old, and immediately had a problem.
"She was completely afraid to make a turn on that first flight," recalled Steve Thibault, her trainer on that day in 1987. "I told her that there was no other way to get back to the airport unless we made a turn."
Dowdy, of Bethel, who left behind a career on the ground as an electrical engineer and spent thousands of hours teaching others in the Twin Cities to fly as an award-winning instructor, died Aug. 13 of complications related to a lung infection. She was 72.
"I continued to be her flight instructor until she died," Thibault said. "We made her last two flights together, in her airplane, about a month and a half before she passed away."
Dowdy retired from Unisys in 2001, leaving her more time as chief flight instructor for Knowlton Flight Instruction Services at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport. By 2003, she was deemed a master flight instructor by the National Association of Flight Instructors, a designation held by just a few hundred people around the world.
"Linda had battled with arthritis for many years, [but] she didn't let this stop her from flying her airplane when it became difficult to move certain knobs or handles in the cockpit," Thibault said. "Rather, Linda would attach a device to these pesky switches so she could continue to move these controls."
'Her heart's really in this'
Eventually, the arthritis forced Dowdy to take her flight instruction indoors, in 2006, and she started Sim Flite Minnesota. For 2007, she was named Minnesota Flight Instructor of the Year by the Federal Aviation Administration.
"She's different, but she's the real deal," Mike Andersen, the retired Northwest Airlines flight instructor who recommended Dowdy for the honor, said soon after she received her award. "Other pilots become flight instructors only because they want to advance their careers, because they need the flight hours. Not Linda. Her heart's really in this."
Dowdy started her business at the Anoka airport with one simulator to train pilots for their instrument rating and multi-engine ratings, as well as to help improve the skills of already-qualified pilots, Thibault said.
"Linda always preached the benefits of using a simulator to keep a pilot's skills sharp and finely tuned," Thibault said.
Two years ago, she added a state-of-the-art flight simulator, with a glass cockpit and "the newest and most advanced avionics that can been found in today's airplanes," he added.
This later-in-life career shift that lasted 25 years was initially met with doubts from her family and even herself.
"When I became an instructor, I worried, 'Who wants to take lessons from middle-aged ladies?' " she said in a 2008 interview. "But it's worked out well. People allow me to share their dream."
Raised, mushed Malamutes
Seemingly on a par to flying in Dowdy's life was her devotion to raising Alaskan malamutes, which she mushed in the mountains of New Mexico while living in Texas and continued to mush after moving to Minnesota more than 30 years ago.
"I met [her] in 1984, when I was looking for a quality malamute puppy," said Sharon Scholl, who later became partners in a kennel with Dowdy. "She came highly recommended as an authority on 'structure and movement' of the breed."
Dowdy is survived by her sister, Helen Baumgaertner. Services were held Monday at the RC Avionics hangar at the Anoka County-Blaine Airport.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482