On a sunny afternoon last July, Aspen native Suzanne Pfister hosted a benefit luncheon outside the historic Wheeler/Stallard Museum to announce an ambitious fundraising campaign for her nonprofit, the BettyFlies Foundation. Its mission: to fund aviation-related programs for kids while honoring the legacy of pilot Betty Haas Pfister, Suzanne’s bold, beautiful, fearless mother who started flying planes in the 1940s.
“I like to say she had a wrench in one hand and a compact in the other,” said Suzanne of her mother, about a month after the lunch. She related how a week before college graduation, Betty left to fly with the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in World War II. Though the women didn’t fly in combat, they performed tasks sometimes just as dangerous, like piloting damaged planes to safe destinations.
Post-war, for lack of pilot opportunities, Betty became a flight attendant for Pan Am. She retained her passion for flying, however, and soon bought a plane, Galloping Gertie, that she flew in air races. On a ski trip to Aspen to visit fellow WASP Ruthie Brown (whose husband ran the Aspen Skiing Corporation), Betty met her future husband in a lift line; he was holding up a sign that read, “If you think I’m handsome, I’m available.” “It was a great Aspen love story,” laughs Suzanne.
After moving to Aspen to marry Art Pfister (who later co-founded Buttermilk ski area), Betty continued to be involved in aviation. She founded Pitkin County Air Rescue (which recovered crashed planes), started balloon races in Snowmass, and successfully petitioned the FAA to get a control tower for the Aspen airport. And she took her family flying. “I’ve been in planes my entire life,” says Suzanne. “When most families go for road trips, we’d go for a plane ride.”
Betty passed away in 2011, at age 90. Since then, a grassroots campaign has formed to name a new Aspen airport terminal after her. That’s how the BettyFlies Foundation originally formed. But after Suzanne stopped by Aspen High one day and learned about the school’s flight education program, “I took a hard right,” she says. She convinced the board members she’d already convened for the airport naming effort that BettyFlies should help support budding aviators. “My strong suit is fundraising and connecting people,” she notes.
One part of the foundation’s mission has already come to fruition. In September, the Aspen Flight Academy announced its Every Student Flies program, made possible, in part, by a $100,000 donation from BettyFlies. This first-of-its-kind program offers all 556 kids at Aspen High the opportunity to take a free one-hour flight lesson with a certified flight instructor, followed by an educational tour—including the control tower—of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. Other partners include the Aspen School District and the Aspen Education Foundation, plus Diamond Aircraft, which is selling two new planes annually to the program per a 10-year agreement.
Suzanne hopes that by sparking an interest in flying, kids may find an eventual professional path to pursue, whether it’s piloting a plane or doing one of the other 50 aviation-related jobs. “I was a misfit in high school,” she says. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. So many kids are lost. If we could help just one young person, ignite some kind of passion, I’d be so satisfied.”
Since that July luncheon, BettyFlies has also raised enough money to fund two full flight-school scholarships for high-schoolers (at $12,000 each). Future goals include eight more of these scholarships, plus one for college.
“I didn’t expect BettyFlies to resonate like it has,” says Suzanne. “I’m in awe of this community and the reception that we have received. That’s the Aspen I grew up in.”