When Eileen Isola flew her first mission for Angel Flight South Central in November, the experience came packed with meaning. For one thing, her passengers were especially engaging: 7-year-old Susana has been living with leukemia for five years, but her intelligence and spark still shine through her, just as they do in her mother, also named Susana.
But the importance of this trip to Eileen went beyond the reward of helping people in need of care. This mission was Eileen's first solo flight in decades, and represented an important personal challenge she made to herself during her ongoing recovery from her breast cancer treatment. While she is cancer-free, the reconstructive surgeries she underwent after her treatment were performed poorly, leaving behind so much scar tissue in her core, chest and shoulders that she was physically incapacitated.
It has been a long, difficult struggle to rebuild her strength and career. Just one year ago, climbing onto the wing of a small aircraft would have been an impossible task. But Eileen Isola is not one to be easily daunted. She dubbed her personal and professional detailed recovery plan "Operation High Flight" and has studiously rebuilt her strength and endurance through physical therapy and osteopathic treatments. Eileen returned to the cockpit last July, and re-obtained her class 1 license in August, and earned her Airline Transport Pilot license earlier this month. She just signed up for her second AFSC mission and is applying for jobs as an airline pilot.
Eileen's fierce inner strength comes as no surprise to anyone who knows her professional history. She matriculated at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1981, at a time when women made up a very small percentage of military pilots and federal law prohibited women from serving in combat roles.
At the tender age of 27, she was chosen as an Advance Agent to the President of the United States, serving Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. As an Advance Agent, Eileen was part of the team that traveled ahead of Air Force One, making all the necessary security, logistical, and diplomatic arrangements on the ground before the president's arrival. The work was "so fascinating and so challenging," she says, particularly when working with the skeletal crews at smaller airports, both domestically and internationally.
She remarked on one particularly notable trip to Namibia in southern Africa, where then-vice-presidential hopeful Dan Quayle had been sent on a diplomatic tour. At this small, rural airport, Eileen and the rest of the advance team found one 17-year-old running the tower, one firefighter, one customs official, and a garden hose being used to pump fuel. Still, she said, the crew were very professional. And at the end of the day, no matter what the circumstances, Eileen as the Air Force agent on the ground had to be prepared to stand solo on the ramp, as the visible signal to the Air Force One pilot that it was OK to land.
Soon after, Eileen became a pivotal player in the campaign to repeal the federal law barring women soldiers from combat roles. "I commend the Air Force for stepping out and taking the lead," she told a New York Times reporter when many of the restrictions on women serving in combat were repealed in 1993. "This truly makes an assignment based on an officer's pilot abilities, flying skills, maturity, and judgment with no regard to gender." Eileen later became president of Women Military Aviators, an international non-profit whose membership was instrumental in the law's repeal.
Life Beyond the Cockpit
By the time Eileen retired as a Lieutenant Colonel from the Air Force in 2005, she was a decorated officer who had served as commander of the 463rd Operations Support Squadron, as a C-130 and T-38 Instructor Pilot, and in numerous other flying, operational, and staff positions including combat.
It was in the middle of her second career – running an interior architecture and design firm that she co-founded with her business partner – that she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She ended up moving from northern Virginia to Fort Worth, Texas, and it was at University of North Texas' Health Sciences Center where she found the medical treatment she needed to restore her physical integrity after the botched reconstructive surgery.
The process of rebuilding has drawn on Eileen's core strengths of intellectual curiosity and perseverance. But it has also taught her how to prioritize herself and let go of needless expectations, skills that she says do not come readily to either women or service members. "I understand now what it means to put myself first – and that that's not an expression of selfishness," she says. "It's just a recognition that I can't be my best self for anyone else if I don't take care of me."
Flying for Angel Flight South Central, she says, has proven an excellent way to take care of herself. "First and foremost, it lets me pay it forward," she says, noting how restorative it has been for her to help others going through cancer treatment. The AFSC missions also give Eileen the experience she needs to rebuild her flying career. "As I'm working to get hired by an airline, it helps tremendously to fly with a professional organization like Angel Flight South Central. This is important work that feeds me in so many ways."