By Doris Degner-Foster
Rebecca Randall joked that she became a pilot because her best friend in high school needed a college roommate, and it’s partly true. Rebecca didn’t have college plans in high school but when her friend urged her to consider going to Kent State in Ohio to be her roommate, Rebecca began to look over the list of majors offered. When she saw aerospace flight technology, her decision was made.
“I thought it would be so cool to learn how to fly as a hobby, then when I saw in the brochure that I could go to college to learn how to be a pilot for a career, it just kind of put that all together,” Rebecca said. “I got accepted to Kent State without my parents even knowing.”
Never mind that no one else in her family had a college education; Rebecca’s parents were very supportive of her decision and did what they could to help her.
“You Can’t Do It”
Not everyone thought being a pilot was a good idea for Rebecca, though. Her older brother’s godfather was a chief dispatcher for a commercial airline and he urged her brother to consider being an airline pilot. “My brother wanted nothing to do with it but I thought that’d be cool,” Rebecca remembered. “I thought I could go be a pilot, but this family friend told me, ‘No, but you could be a stewardess.’ I said, ‘But I want to be a pilot!’”
This well-meaning family friend warned her even after she was progressing well in her training and getting certification on different airplanes that she would have problems as a woman in the profession.
“He was of the older generation of aviation and it wasn’t very common for women to be commercial pilots, let alone for the airlines. But it’s just part of my personality that if you tell me that I can’t do something, I’m going to show you that I can,” Rebecca said. “To this day, I kind of keep him in the back of my mind, look back and laugh with a little smirk. We don’t really see him anymore but I’d just like to tell him that I’m very successful at what I do, and maybe if it wasn’t for him saying that I couldn’t do it, it wouldn’t have turned out the way it did.”
Her start at riding wasn’t entirely easy, either. “My parents knew I loved horses but didn’t have the means to buy a horse for me,” Rebecca said, “so on every family vacation, we would always try to find a barn where we could go trail riding. We would all enjoy it, but none of us knew what we were doing.”
It wasn’t until years later that Rebecca had the chance to learn about proper horsemanship. Another female pilot that she worked with had ridden jumpers on the East Coast circuit and helped her learn good fundamental skills. She advised Rebecca about getting her first horse and boarded it at her farm, but there was a bump along the way.
“I was riding alone in the pasture soon after I’d learned how to canter up a hill,” Rebecca remembered. “My horse got spooked and just took off with me over the crest of a hill and as we were coming down the hill, I took an oak branch to my body which knocked me to the ground. When my horse came back to the barn without me, my friend knew something was wrong. She hurried out and found me wandering around the field, my face full of blood, and I didn’t know where I was. I had a concussion and a fractured pelvis, but it didn’t stop me from continuing to ride. It made me want to learn how to become a better rider so that I wouldn’t have to go through that again.”
Rebecca now rides with Harvard Fox Hounds of Tulsa, Oklahoma, as a whipper-in. After a few years of training, she now has the confidence to gallop over uneven terrain on her mare Roxy, a 17.2-hand Percheron bought sight unseen from the University of Arkansas auction. “When you get your horse of a lifetime, you just know it,” Rebecca said. “Roxy is my horse of a lifetime.” Roxy has been voted Field Hunter of the Year by the club and has also been Rebecca’s mount leading the field.
“When flying or riding, there’s always the aspect of the unknown; it’s never the same flight or the same ride twice,” Rebecca said. “You always have to be on your toes because in the back of your mind, you have to be ready for the unexpected.”
Full Speed Ahead
Rebecca’s career path wasn’t exactly what she had originally expected, either. During the process of earning her four-year degree in aerospace flight technology, Rebecca earned her instrument flight rating — flying solely on instruments when weather makes it difficult to see — and all of her ratings or licenses to fly everything from single-engine two-seater airplanes to multiengine aircraft, and teaching others to fly them. She taught in Houston for a year then decided to fly for the corporate sector with plans to then move on to airlines. But between top-of-the-line aircraft and the opportunity to fly compassionate missions, Rebecca has found her niche in flying for Walmart Executive Headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, since 1998.
Her first plane for Walmart was a Turbo Commander, a higher performance aircraft than anything she’d ever flown. She progressed to flying various Learjets and now especially enjoys flying the newest jet in the Walmart fleet of 17 aircraft, the Cessna Citation Sovereign +. “The Sovereign, with the avionics and information that are available to you as a pilot in the airplane, makes it so much safer, so much more user-friendly,” Rebecca said. “Any information is just right there; there’s no deciphering, no figuring out where you are. There’s a moving map right in front of you.”
Pilot training on the various aircraft is of highest importance to the company. Rebecca explained that the pilots all go to recurrent training twice a year for four days. They review ground school material and also spend approximately 10 or 12 hours in the flight simulator.
“In the simulator, they just throw everything at you so you practice things that can go wrong. I can’t say you rehearse for them, but you practice in the simulator so that if and when it ever does happen in the real world, you are prepared,” Rebecca explained. “Once, I was at 41,000 feet and all of a sudden I felt my ears popping. I looked down at my pressurization system and sure enough, the cabin was getting a little bit higher pressurization than it’s supposed to and we had to do an emergency descent. There have been some abnormal instances like that, but I wouldn’t say they were scary, because I was prepared for them. It was just a matter of going through procedures and to get through it to land the airplane safely.”
Making a Difference
As a pilot, Rebecca is in a unique position to be of help during certain disasters. She flew blood and vaccinations along with doctors and nurses down to Baton Rouge when hurricane Katrina hit, and was a part of a group of Walmart pilots who recently flew five mission trips to Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria struck the island. In addition to delivering various supplies to help get their stores open to make goods available on the devastated island, they brought cases of life-saving insulin and technicians who worked to get power restored.
“We can put about 1,000 pounds-worth of baggage in our cargo hold, which doesn’t seem like a lot when you talk about bigger airplanes, but for us to be able to pick it up and have it down to Puerto Rico within 5 hours, it was pretty spectacular,” Rebecca said. “We were trying to make it to the island, drop off our equipment, turn around and get back out of there without having to find fuel because the supplies just weren’t there.”
These humanitarian trips are actually not new to Rebecca, who has been a part of other lifesaving flights. She explained, “We are also a part of the Angel Flight Network, which takes cancer patients anywhere they need to go. If their schedule matches with our schedule and we have an open seat, we offer it to them at no charge.”
More Than Career Success
These situations emphasize Rebecca’s own blessings. Rebecca and her husband, Bob, were married in Oahu on New Year’s Eve 2006. Although Bob had zero horse experience before meeting Rebecca, he is very supportive, especially with their 9-year-old daughter, Rylee, who also loves to ride and has progressed quickly in her training.
While originally shopping for a warmblood gelding to ride in the hunt field, Rebecca ended up bringing home a young palomino filly. The thought was that Rylee would begin riding the 16-hand mare, Iris, when she began jumping in the future, but by 8 Rylee began riding Iris and is now jumping 18”. She’s preparing for her first A-rated show in July, where she will compete in short stirrup. Bob and Rebecca recently bought a larger trailer with living quarters and look forward to traveling to shows with Rylee around Rebecca’s work schedule, which allows for blocks of time off.
“The best time of my life has got to be right now,” she said. “I have a great husband, a beautiful child, horses, friends and a stable job. I’m happy with where I am in my life. I think it goes right back to maintaining balance. A little bit of everything, not just concentrating on one area but enjoying life to the fullest.”