- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2020

MANKATO, Minn. (AP) - A broken back finally propelled Aura Austin to fly.

Recovering from a fall from a horse that could have ended her life led the owner of a rural Mankato horse ranch to take stock of her future.

Austin had eight broken vertebra and suspects she would have also suffered a fatal head injury if she hadn’t been wearing a helmet in 2016.

The close call and the ample time for self-reflection during three months of recovery prompted her to pursue a long-shelved dream of learning how to fly airplanes, the Mankato Free Press reports.

“I realized: Why am I not doing what I want to be doing?” she said. “I couldn’t get it off my mind. I couldn’t get it off my heart,”

Now the 37-year-old is a contract pilot and is starting her own small business teaching pilots aerobatics and other specialized skills. Last month she bought her first plane, which she has named “Blue” and brought it back to the Mankato Regional Airport.

Austin’s interest in aviation was sparked at age 14 when the native Californian got to go up for a free flight through the U.S. Experimental Aircraft Association Young Eagles program.

She mulled studying aviation when she came to Mankato to study at Minnesota State University. But she held the mistaken assumption that her only prospective career would be flying for a large airline, and she decided against that prospect.

Austin earned degrees in mass communication and Spanish, worked in sales and for a family business, and spent some time as a stay-at-home mom.

Her two girls, now ages 13 and 9, were in the backseat as she learned how to fly. Austin couldn’t afford both flying lessons and child care, but she also hoped to inspire them to pursue their dreams.

Initially she planned to fly just for pleasure. But after just a few hours in the clouds, she realized she wanted to fly professionally.

After earning her commercial pilot’s license, Austin began flying private planes for businesses and individuals. She also worked for the Minnesota Air Spectacular at the Mankato Regional Airport last year, coordinating logistics for all the pilots who performed.

Austin is herself a trained aerobatics pilot and now is starting to teach other pilots how to spin, fly upside down and do other maneuvers. The skills are not just fun to perform and watch, Austin said, they also improve pilots’ ability to handle mid-air emergencies.

Austin also teaches how to land tailwheel aircraft - which have a less-common configuration of landing gear predominately seen on older aircraft. An affection for World War II and other historic planes led Austin to learn this skill and now share it with others.

Austin recently bought a restored 1976 tailwheel aerobatic plane and soon will begin giving lessons with the Mankato airport as her home base.

Along with operating a small flying school business, Austin said she also plans to use her new plane to give back to the Mankato area aviation community.

She wants to give rides to youth like the one that sparked her interest in aviation and give scholarships for flight training like the ones that helped her become a professional pilot.

She’d also like to host opportunities for youths to come out to see Blue and learn about aviation and the variety of related career opportunities. She said she hopes not only to inspire future aviators but also more broadly to inspire youth to not wait like she did to pursue their ambitions.

“I want to help people focus on their dreams and less about how they can’t do it,” she said. “Go for it. We all have adversities.”

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