The Minnesota flight instructor of the year is a 68-year-old woman who didn't take flying lessons until she was 47. She's a former electrical engineer. She could have been a concert pianist. She is a native Texan who, upon coming to Minnesota, raised sled dogs.

Linda Dowdy, of Bethel, suffers from arthritis so severe that she struggles to sit in a plane. But when she does, others stand up and take notice.

"She's different, but she's the real deal," said Mike Andersen, a retired flight instructor for Northwest Airlines who wrote a letter of recommendation to the Federal Aviation Administration supporting Dowdy for the instructor of the year award.

"Other pilots become flight instructors only because they want to advance their careers, because they need the flight hours," Andersen said. "Not Linda. Her heart's really in this. She does this because she doesn't want standards to deteriorate."

Her recent state award for 2007 places her in competition for regional and, possibly, national flight instructor awards presented by an FAA safety team.

But Dowdy says she doesn't know how she became a candidate or who nominated her. And she doesn't care.

She seems more concerned with the students she instructs at Sim Flite Minnesota, the flight simulator company she owns and operates at the Anoka County/Blaine Airport.

"They keep me sharp, bad knees and all," she said. "I'm constantly doing preparation work. When it comes to flying, I take nothing for granted.

"When I became an instructor, I worried, 'Who wants to take lessons from middle-aged ladies?' But it's worked out well. People allow me to share their dream."

'You're nuts'

Dowdy was one of those people who looked overhead and truly believed the sky's the limit. Growing up near El Paso, she said she watched every plane that flew above. But it wasn't until her late 40s that she told her sister that she wanted to take flying lessons.

The response was predictable.

"You're nuts," Dowdy said she was told. "Why would you want to do that?"

Dowdy wondered the same thing -- for all of "nine seconds," she said.

When a flight instructor asked if she was ready for her first flight, she momentarily balked and then got in the plane.

She was terrified. She was fascinated. She felt exhilarated.

She was hooked.

She doesn't mention the CD of songs she's written on piano, but her head pierces the clouds when asked about her 1966 Piper Twin Comanche, the four-passenger plane she's owned for 14 years.

Dowdy, who was transferred from Texas to Minnesota while working for Unisys, had one particularly scary moment after she'd logged about 400 hours in the air. During a return flight from Texas, she encountered icing near Sioux Falls, S.D., and nearly crashed, she said.

An aviation safety magazine published her account of the incident, which she blamed on inexperience and bad decisions. She vowed to relay her experience so others could avoid similar traumas.

She also wanted to tell prospective fliers of the sheer joy of flying at 11,000 feet over Utah, as the sun sets and the moon appears on the rise, and seeing a rosy glow around the horizon. She wanted to share the thrill of heading toward Michigan at 9,000 feet, with ice storms in Minnesota at her tail, and seeing a rainbow that formed a perfect circle.

She always asks her students why they want to fly. A standard answer is, "It's something I've always wanted to do." Often, her students are older -- as she was when she started -- people who didn't have the time or savings to learn to fly 20 years earlier. Most understand Dowdy's flying dreams.

"Linda is patient and very professional," said Andersen, who helped start the Minnesota Association of Professional Flight Instructors. "Most of all, she believes in what she's doing, and that comes across right away.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419