President, Aero Design Aircraft Services and Fly Lugu Flight Training
She Inspires Her Students and Others Around Her to Soar Higher
“It’s like being in a time machine.”
That’s how Fredrika (Rika) Ballard described flying, a passion she has enjoyed pretty much her whole life and one she now inspires others to pursue.
While you can’t really go back or forward in time with an airplane, you can get somewhere fast — somewhere like Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, she said, offering up just two examples.
She can get to the Vineyard in 30 minutes in her twin-engined Beechcraft Baron, while others, using standard means of transportation — a car and then the ferry — would probably need five, maybe six hours, depending on the traffic and which ferry they took.
“For me, flying means freedom — I’m as comfortable in the air as I am on the ground,” said Ballard, president and lead flight instructor at Aero Design Aircraft Services and Fly Lugu Flight Training in Westfield, who has flown everything from tiny ‘beginner’ planes to a corporate jet.
Lugu, by the way, is an industry term. Well, sort of. It’s what Ballard’s father used to say about the yoke, or control column, of the airplane.
“She is not an instructor who just teaches. She is a coach, a friend, a trusting companion that inspires and helps you flourish.”
“The plane goes where you look,” she said. “If you’re looking down or you’re looking at the ground, you’re subconsciously putting the yoke forward, and the plane starts going down. But when you look up, you subconsciously pull the yoke toward you, and the plane goes up. Look up, go up — that’s what Lugu means; you’re only going up from here.”
Those letters are part of a design for the company she was thinking and dreaming about, starting quite literally with a drawing on a napkin in early 2019 (more on that later), while not really believing that the dream was going to come true.
It has, and the reality has gone well beyond a flight school. Indeed, Ballard now owns a maintenance shop at Barnes Municipal Airport, where she employs four mechanics, and is involved with initiatives to build new hangars at the airport.
As for the flight school, it continues a strong pattern of growth and now boasts nine planes (with more on the way), 10 instructors, 130 students on average, and roughly 24 flights per day — if the weather is cooperating.
As a flier, flight instructor, and serial entrepreneur, Ballard has become much more to those around her. She’s an inspiration as well as a facilitator of sorts, helping others find the freedom of flying, especially women, who are still firmly in the minority when it comes to this pastime, but are, well, gaining ground.
Saba Shahid, one of Ballard’s students, explained things nicely as she nominated her to be a Woman of Impact.
“She is not an instructor who just teaches,” Shahid wrote. “She is a coach, a friend, a trusting companion that inspires and helps you flourish. Rika is someone I consider to be a role model that is standing up for women every day and inspiring us to know that the sky is not our limit.
“Being a female pilot is about shattering stereotypes and showing the world what women are all about,” she went on. “Rika does this each day for the women and men that go to her school.”
Such sentiments explain why Ballard is among the Women of Impact for 2023.
The walls of Ballard’s office at the terminal building at Barnes are ringed with photographs of her students beside or in the aircraft in which they stretched their wings — literally and figuratively. Each one tells a story, but collectively they tell a broader story about flying and those who are pursuing that sense of freedom she spoke of.
It’s mostly men in the pictures, but there are many women as well. Some are young, others a little older. A few are retired and looking for a new adventure. And then, there’s the 91-year-old man intent on earning his license.
“It was a bucket-list thing for him, and he’s taken six or seven lessons,” she said, adding that there is, overall, greater interest in pursuing a license these days. A shortage of airline pilots has something to do with it, but there are other reasons as well, including pursuit of that freedom and the ability to get to places like the Vineyard in 30 minutes, as well as pandemic-inspired efforts to draw lines on individuals’ to-do lists, including the dream of learning to fly.
The photos also help tell Ballard’s story, at least the chapter that started with the napkin she drew Lugu on. We’ll get back to that, but first we need to go back much further.
Ballard said she was introduced to flying by her father, a general aviation pilot and engineer by trade.
“I’ve been flying as long as I can remember,” she said, adding that she cut her teeth on an Aerona Champion, known as the ‘Champ,’ and then a Beechcraft Bonanza, both small, single-engine planes.
She soloed on her 16th birthday, at Barnes, and got her license at the earliest age she could — 17. Since then, flying has been a lifelong pursuit: a passion, and then a business. But always a passion.
She and her husband are avid hikers, and they will regularly fly to Mount Washington for an afternoon. She flies to Martha’s Vineyard once a week, on average, to visit family or friends. Sometimes, it will just be for lunch or dinner.
“I like to fly for food,” she said with a laugh, adding that most general-aviation airports like Barnes will have ‘courtesy cars’ to borrow and take into town for a meal or shopping. “It’s always fun to meet new people and see different parts of the country; flying gives you the freedom to do all that.”
It wasn’t until she retired in 2018 from her role as administrator at Facial Cosmetic & Maxillofacial Surgery and then earned her advanced licenses that she started to think about shaping her time machine into a business. With those credentials, she could become an instructor, and a friend offered her an opportunity, and a plane, to do so.
But the plane was poorly maintained, and the opportunity just wasn’t right.
“I just wasn’t feeling it,” she said, adding that, soon thereafter, she was at a bar with a friend, took the napkin in front of her, and doodled out a script ‘Fly Lugu,’ with planes (actually arrows on the first take) on some of the letters for effect.
“I had enough money to buy a starter plane, and my friend, a business person in the area, said, ‘why don’t you just buy a plane and start a school?’” she recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never thought about it.’”
The Wild Blu
So she started thinking about it, and with no flying school at Barnes at the time and, on her end, the requisite time, capital, enthusiasm, and drive, she decided to take the plunge — or, in this case, the climb, another industry term.
She started in August 2019 with a few students and one plane, a Cessna 172 named Blu — all her planes have names. She didn’t sign the lease for space in the terminal building until February 2020 — yes, a few weeks before the pandemic largely shut down Western Mass.
She persevered, as other businesses did, by getting creative and finding ways to carry on — with Zoom calls, remote lessons, meeting students who could solo on the runway ramp before their flights, and, later, resuming training flights with masks and other PPE.
And when the skies cleared (pandemic-wise), many of those who were home and thinking about items on their bucket list — and things they may have started but never finished — turned their attention to flying.
“When we could start to fly again, I was flying sunrise to sunset every day,” she recalled. “I had another instructor come on because I couldn’t handle it all alone; there was a lot of demand.
And while things have cooled off somewhat, business has remained brisk, with Ballard adding planes and instructors regularly over the past three years.
“When we could start to fly again, I was flying sunrise to sunset every day.”
Aas noted earlier, she has become a serial entrepreneur, acquiring the maintenance shop at Barnes, called AeroDesign, based in a hangar that dates in 1926 and the early days of the airport; becoming a partner in the construction of new hangars at the airport; and also partnering with the New England Air Museum to be its official flight school.
Beyond all these accomplishments and ambitious future plans, Ballard has made it a mission to encourage, and inspire, more women to take to the skies. And she is succeeding in that mission with Shahid and many others, including a former student who is now an instructor at Lugu.
“Rika has been an extraordinary leader empowering women to enter the field of aviation and be confident in their abilities,” Shahid wrote in her nomination. “She is breaking barriers and stereotypes each day to make it easier for women to succeed in this field.”
Blu and the other aircraft in what can now be called a fleet have become the vehicles with which others are experiencing the freedom of flying. For most, this will be at least a yearlong journey — longer if the weather is like it has been this year.
As a flyer, flight instructor, and owner of a flight school, Ballard is certainly plugged into the weather. She has several weather apps on her phone and is always watching the sky for clues about what’s on the horizon.
“You almost become like an amateur meteorologist, because you’re always looking at the sky, and you get to know the patterns of the weather and what works and what doesn’t,” she said, adding that those who want a reliable forecast will turn to her.
At the moment, the forecast for her business is clear with a strong chance of continued growth. She’s an optimist who prefers to put her faith in what her father said about pulling the yoke — “you’re only going up from here.”
Her ability to breed confidence in others and set their sights higher, whether they’re flying in Blu and coping with the many other challenges of life, explains why Ballard is a Woman of Impact.