Q&A with Sarah Caldwell: LIFT Academy Graduate Now Republic Airways First Officer

Republic Airways Holdings Inc. revolutionized the regional airline industry by launching its very own flight school. LIFT Academy is dedicated to empowering aspiring pilots, providing them with the opportunity to make their dreams of flying a reality. Sarah Caldwell, who initially worked as a flight attendant, was drawn to experience flight on the other side of the flight deck door. Having successfully completed her flight training at LIFT she is now living the reality of her dream, flying as a Republic Airways First Officer! 

Question: Hi, Sarah! Thank you for joining us today to take us through your aviation journey! Before we take off, will you share a little bit about yourself and what made you interested in aviation? 

Sarah: In January 2013, I started work as a mainline flight attendant. There was something about the aviation industry, the travel, crazy schedules and all, that already felt like home. 

Right away, I was drawn to the other side of the flight deck door. When opportunity finally presented itself, I took a discovery flight and made the decision to pursue flying. I applied to a local flight school but when it came time to work out the financing, I wasn’t able to afford training on my own.  

Instead of accepting defeat, it lit a fire inside me and for several years I worked as much as possible to save up to make my dream come true. I tried not to feel pangs of jealousy when I saw other acquaintances on the journey toward flying already. It cemented in me the idea that if I didn’t eventually pursue this, I’d always regret it. My time was coming.  

When I found LIFT, I knew it was the right fit for me and packed up my entire life and moved to Indianapolis in January 2020. COVID-19 was a terrifying time as I wasn’t sure what would happen to LIFT, my future job, my current flight attendant job or the future of aviation in general. I was one lesson away from my first solo when Indiana’s stay-at-home orders started. 

Yet ten weeks later, I was back in the sky! Despite roadblocks out of my control, I earned all my ratings by December 2022 and spent seven months as a Certificated Flight Instructor (CFI) instructing and building up my hours. I then earned my Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate and trained as a First Officer for Republic Airways, which is where I am today! And today, ten years after the idea first dawned on me, I can call myself an airline transport pilot for a commercial carrier. It was worth the wait!

Learning to fly was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I don’t regret a minute of it and I’m so excited for my future. A career as a flight attendant is a great one, but it just wasn’t the right fit for me. Turns out, I just had the wrong set of wings on. 

Question: Your resilience is a true testament to the dedication and determination one must have to overcome hurdles and realize their dreams! It must be a great feeling, having earned your wings and to be able to call the sky home, doing what you love and are passionate about. Talk to us more about what made you choose LIFT and what your experiences were like as a student and instructor? 

Sarah: The culture is one of the reasons I chose to move across the country and train at LIFT. I was looking for an accelerated, structured program but one that didn’t feel like a “pilot mill”. I wanted to be recognized for the individual I am and that was my experience at LIFT. From the very beginning, it was apparent that the staff knew my name and face and celebrated my successes and supported me through my struggles. I was also attracted to LIFT and Republic’s focus on safety and the way its training mirrored airline pilot practices.  

Question: Many agree that the culture at LIFT is something that sets it apart. That special kind of culture is cultivated, and I am thrilled to hear that you felt personally inspired during your training, which is undoubtedly no small feat. Do you have a favorite part about the LIFT Academy program? 

Sarah: My favorite part of my experience at LIFT was being a CFI. I instructed at LIFT for exactly 7 months and flew almost 1,000 hours during that time. (450 of those hours were in my favorite plane, N855L!) I signed off 10 students for check rides. I had the opportunity to teach students at all levels. My favorite course to teach was instrument; my least favorite was commercial. The most rewarding was definitely private. 

I gave my students everything I had and feel like I was rewarded with their best efforts in return. I truly cared about my students’ safety and success and I grew so much as a pilot through teaching. It was an incredibly rewarding experience, beyond my expectations. Every single one of my students that I trained long term has stayed in touch with me since I transitioned to Republic which is truly touching. I am honored that they still feel comfortable asking me for help, advice or sharing their training updates. 

Question: It sounds like you have passed on your expertise to those who have followed in your footsteps, and I’m certain that your passion and intentionality have made a significant impact on your students. Looking back on your experiences at LIFT, is there a favorite memory that stands out to you? 

Sarah: My favorite memory as a student was probably my initial solo. I was extremely nervous to take an airplane into the sky all by myself for the first time. My instructor endorsed my logbook and said, “Well, I think you’re ready but I’m not going to force you,” and hopped out of the plane and walked away before I could respond. I stood outside, overwhelmed with nerves, and another LIFT student from my class, Brian, walked over to me from the FBO. He, too, was supposed to solo but his instructor deemed it too windy and said no. I could see the disappointment in Brian’s face. My instructor wasn’t worried about me, though. He knew I could handle the wind! And that’s when I snapped out of it and knew I could do it. And when I decided to go for it, Brian’s CFI let him solo, too. We both did our three solo laps in the pattern together and it was such a special experience. Not only did I get to solo, but I had a pivotal moment in overcoming my nerves.  

My favorite memory as an instructor was getting to teach a student from the beginning of his instrument rating through his successful check ride pass and being in the plane the moment everything “clicked.” It was also incredibly rewarding to watch my students working on their private pilot certificates solo for the first time. 

Question: Sometimes you need someone else to remind you of your capabilities! Looking back on your career and also looking ahead to your future, what are you most proud of and what are you looking forward to? 

Sarah: It’s hard to pick one accomplishment as being “the most” proud but I have to say that along with passing my ATP and CFI check rides, taking the first step to follow my dream of being a pilot is an accomplishment in itself. I heard it constantly as a flight attendant: A regretful, “I always wanted to fly.” However, a lot of people never take that first step because of time, cost, difficulty, other commitments, risk or several other valid excuses. I never wanted to look back on my life and question, “What if?” Making such a leap and drastically altering your entire life in pursuit of a dream can be scary, especially for those comfortable in a separate career already. It can be intimidating coming into this field as a flight attendant, and as a woman, as someone in their 30s or 40s, but no one should let any of that stop them; I didn’t. Sometimes the first step is the hardest, but I will always be proud of myself for taking it.  

I encourage anyone, especially other women or other flight attendants who are considering flying to go for it! It’s never too late to follow your dreams. 

Question: Your story will inspire others just like you to take that first step and open a world of possibilities. We are lucky to have exceptional students and instructors who go through our program, leaving a mark on others and motivating them to realize their potential and follow their dreams. To wrap up, I’d like to ask as I do everyone at the end of our time together: what advice do you have for people considering a career in aviation? 

Sarah: Until you spread your wings you have no idea how far you’ll fly. 

If you’re ready to take the first step in embarking on your career journey, apply today to fly with LIFT and land at Republic.