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Take to the skies

Pat Everheart • Jan 16, 2012 at 12:09 PM

Janice Orr Pelletti couldn’t do what most of us did during the psychically paralyzing days of September 2001. As federal aviation safety inspector in Minneapolis, she couldn’t sit around replaying the morning of the 11th, fearing what might happen next. Stunned or not, horrified or not, newly engaged or not, she was part of the Federal Aviation Administration team that had skies to make safe again.

In the chaotic days after 9/11, Pelletti’s job was to track down every crop-dusting plane in Minnesota, following up on a tip that warned the next attack might involve small aircraft and chemicals. She’s exactly the kind of person we wanted on the job when lives were on the line.

Being airborne — and doing it with exacting attention to minute detail — is second nature to Pelletti. Her mother, a pioneering pilot, took Pelletti on her first flight when she was 10 days old.

“My mother was meticulous about safety,” said Pelletti, who now lives in Piney Flats. “By the time we loaded the plane, my mother knew what everything weighed, even the Thermos bottles were marked with masking tape when we packed for long trips to Mexico,” Pelletti said, by way of explanation about why she and her husband removed two of the six seats of their Beechcraft A36 Bonanza.

“Just because you’ve got the space, doesn’t mean you can carry the weight,” she said, recounting what happened when an overloaded, unbalanced plane like theirs took off from Elizabethton and failed to clear Holston Mountain, killing the five people on board.

In the rarefied world of commercial aviation, where women make up about 5 percent of the 53,000 members of the Air Line Pilots Association, Pelletti is in the even more elite group of women qualified for the “left seat” of a commercial jet. Pelletti has the Ph.D. of flying, the highest commercial pilot rating — airline transport pilot — the prerequisite for assuming the controls as captain.

Much of Pelletti’s extensive training was put to use at the FAA, where it was her job to ensure the people taking the controls knew what they were doing. After retiring from the FAA in 2009, Pelletti and her husband, Patrick, settled down in East Tennessee. She’d had enough of the Minnesota winters and neither of them wanted to live in Florida, where he’s from. “Somebody mentioned Nashville and we came (here) and looked around and fell in love with it, we love the people, the climate,” she said.

“Settled down” isn’t the precise term for the Pellettis. As a 747 pilot for Atlas Air charter service, Patrick Pelletti, a retired Air Force officer, regularly flies around the world. Janice Pelletti tries to fly at least once a week, but mostly stays closer to home these days. She’s putting her sharply honed organizational skills to different uses: working with kids and dogs.

As coordinator for READing Paws of Upper East Tennessee, Pelletti puts certified therapy dogs, like her own Carl, a breed champion and award-winning Rotweiler, into schools and libraries and bookstores to encourage reluctant readers. In the most kid-friendly combination since macaroni met cheese, therapy dogs are trained to give their undivided attention to kids as they read. The concept, formalized in 1999 by Reading Education Assistance Dogs — READ — has made its way into libraries and schools throughout the United States and Canada as the READing Paws program.

Pelletti organizes the area’s volunteer teams of certified therapy dogs and their handlers, coordinates their READing Paws training and makes sure teams are where the kids, parents and teachers expect them to be.

The rules and regulations for getting dogs certified and insured to work with kids isn’t as intricate as, say, the checkride for a DC-9, but an uncrossed “T” here, an undotted “I” there can mean a disappointed second grader misses the confidence boost he needs to get comfortable reading aloud in school.

Pelletti’s also busy working on a venture she hopes will entice more girls to take up flying or consider other careers in aviation. Pelletti, a former Girl Scout, and other female pilots will host a Girl Scouts aviation career fair in Knoxville April 14.

“A lot of girls and women think they have to know a lot of math to have a career in aviation, and they lose interest,” she said, repeating the advice she heard in her early days in commercial flying: “You just have to know how to add and subtract to make sure your paycheck is right.”

“We thought about holding the fair in the Tri-Cities, but we didn’t have enough women pilots to make it work,” she said. Instead, she’s working with other Tennessee members of the Ninety-Nines, an organization founded by Amelia Earhart and 98 other female pilots in 1929. The Ninety-Nines will fly into Knoxville to staff the demonstration and information stations at the fair, putting female faces on the many aspects of aviation.

To pay for her early training and learn the aviation business from the ground up, Pelletti worked the flight line of a small Minnesota airfield, fueling and washing aircraft. She’s also a highly qualified Gold Seal flight instructor, a top FAA designation. She’s been captain of an air ambulance carrier, a corporate pilot and is a commercial glider pilot.

When Pelletti’s mother, Rita Orr, died in 2009, she was celebrated for her pioneering work in aviation — as a Women’s Air Force Service Pilot in World War II, as campaign pilot for a Minnesota governor and for founding the Minnesota chapter of the Ninety-Nines. But her six decades of work for the Red Cross and the American Cancer Society got almost as much attention. “Her volunteer work, that is what she was most proud of,” Pelletti said.

Ever her mother’s daughter, Pelletti is anxious to get started on yet another volunteer gig. She’ll be working with the animal rescue group A Voice for Pets and a network of pilots who fly animals to their new families.

Orr did more than inspire her daughter to take to the skies; she imbued Pelletti with the volunteer spirit. Maybe that’s why she’s taken to her adopted state so easily.

Reach Pat Everheart at peverheart@johnsoncitypress.com.

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