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At height of flight

Arlynn McMahon isn't called "Your Highness" for nothing.

A certified master flight instructor who's qualified to teach people to fly planes weighing less than 12,500 pounds, she's taught hundreds of people from all over the country to become pilots and helped others refresh and learn new aviation skills.

Every major airline in the world, all branches of the U.S. military, the U.S. Secret Service, and most Fortune 500 companies, including United Parcel Service and FedEx, have employed pilots who were first taught to fly by McMahon.

"Every teacher likes to see her pupils succeed," she said.

Once, McMahon trained a top gun — "the best of the best in the military," she says — who wanted to obtain certification to fly civilian planes. A few weeks ago she provided training to a long-time Boeing 767 pilot who needed to get an authorization to fly small aircraft.

"When you're coming up in your career and down in your career, there's instruction at each end," she explained.

Right now, McMahon is soaring above about 93,000 other certified flight instructors in the United States.

The Versailles resident is the 2009 Certified Flight Instructor of the Year, an honor bestowed upon her by an awards program that is conducted through a partnership between the Federal Aviation Administration and more than a dozen aviation industry organizations.

A sign congratulating McMahon for being the FAA flight instructor of the year and referring to her as "Your Highness" flies above the entrance at Aero-Tech Inc., an FAA-approved flight school based at Lexington's Blue Grass Airport that she co-owns with her husband, Charlie Monette.

"It's a huge deal," McMahon said of the award.

McMahon is one of only a handful of women to win the award in its 45-year history. She's the first female in 14 years to win it, said Sandy Hill, communications director for the national General Aviation Awards program.

"No doubt, she's a good pilot, but in my opinion, far more than that, she's an excellent teacher," Hill said.

McMahon, 50, has come a long way since her teenage years when she swept hangar floors and washed airplanes to earn money to take flying lessons.

In addition to being certified to fly small planes, McMahon holds an airline transport pilot certificate — "the Ph.D of flying" — which means she has the skills to fly big jets. She's also had some aerobatics training, not to become a stunt pilot, but to learn to handle planes in unusual situations, she said.

While McMahon also teaches people how to fly planes, her specialty is teaching other pilots to become flight instructors.

She wrote a book titled Train Like You Fly, a Flight Instructor's Guide to Scenario Based Training, which is in its second printing. She's working on a second book about training techniques that is expected to be available in the spring. She provided editorial assistance for the newly revised FAA Aviation Instructor's Handbook.

"She's very patient ... willing to help you get to your goal or end result," said Brian Staples, 21, of Greensboro, N.C., who has been taking flight instructor lessons from McMahon at Aero-Tech this week.

For a flight instructor, the hardest thing to teach someone is how to think like a pilot, McMahon said.

"You've got to be able to think quicker," she said. "You're constantly evaluating the weather."

McMahon, who holds a bachelor's degree in professional aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., and an MBA in strategic leadership from Amberton University in Dallas, first became interested in flying when she was 14. Her father, a construction businessman and pilot who flew to construction sites, arranged for her to sit in on ground school lessons. She made her first solo flight on her 16th birthday and got a private pilot certificate on her 17th birthday. She became a flight instructor in 1980 and became one of only a few hundred master flight instructors in the country in 2002. She's written for major aviation industry publications, including a monthly column in Aviation for Women. Active in the FAA's National Safety Program since 1984, she's often called on to speak at aviation seminars and has served as an information source for news reporters and others when plane crashes occur.

While she's piloted big jets — "Yes, I like going fast and going high," she says — she prefers to do what she's doing now because she's in contact more with like-minded people who see flying as fun. Besides, she can go when and where she wants to, she said.

"If I go to work for the airlines, I'm going to be a deluxe bus driver," she said.

McMahon once was a co-pilot on a plane that took former President Gerald Ford from Lexington to Michigan.

"It was on autopilot most of the time," she said.

Her recreational flying has taken her to Canada, the Caribbean and 49 U.S. states — all of those trips originating at Blue Grass Airport.

"It's hard to get from here to Hawaii in one of these little airplanes," she said in explaining why she has not piloted a plane to all 50 states.

In 2006, she married Monette, the flight instructor who taught her to fly. In addition to Aero-Tech, McMahon and Monette also own the fixed base operator — a business that services planes — at Russell County Airport in James town.

On Monday night at a reception at the Aviation Museum of Kentucky honoring McMahon for receiving the national award, she was presented with another award, the Kentucky Ace Award, from the Kentucky Department of Aviation for her commitment to aviation education, safety and development.