A dream, determination, and a little bit of destiny are all it took to get Shari Ritchkin’s flying career off the ground.
“Welcome aboard,” Shari Ritchkin ’94 called into the public address system of an Airbus 320 en route to Atlanta. “I’m Captain Shari.” With those words, she became the 20th female to command a Spirit Airlines plane. “There was definitely a sense of accomplishment,” says Ritchkin. “When you look at the statistics, there are only a few female pilots in the industry.” What Ritchkin didn’t know as she climbed above the clouds that day in January 2015 was all the forces at work to have had gotten her there.
Ritchkin’s journey to the cockpit was less than traditional. She always had an interest in flying but it wasn’t until 2004 — when a friend invited her to join him during a lesson — that she began to see herself in the pilot’s chair. The next day, Ritchkin signed up for her own classes and started training out of Monmouth Executive Airport. “I loved it,” Ritchkin says. “It was the best thing I’d ever done.”
The more she flew, the more Ritchkin questioned her career as a teacher and administrator in the Toms River (New Jersey) School District. She started to spend her summers in Florida, where she would load and fly cargo to the Bahamas. During the school year, she would head down to Fort Lauderdale on Fridays to amass additional flying hours required to operate the planes by herself, then return to the Garden State on Sunday. Finally, after meeting all the requirements, Ritchkin committed to aviation full time.
“My parents thought I was nuts when I decided to leave this great job as a school administrator,” says Ritchkin. “But on my last day, I put my hands over my head and drove away. I was off to pursue my dream.” She joined Spirit Airlines in 2012 as a first officer and then moved to the left-side captain’s chair three years later.
In 2019, Ritchkin learned her love of flying may have been in her genes. Her friend, Christine Girtain ’94, helped Ritchkin complete her family history through an at-home DNA test. Ritchkin was adopted when she was three days old and never knew her biological family. “Christine called me and said, ‘Shari, you’ll never believe what I found.’”
The results linked Ritchkin to a sister, Tammy Holloway-Servedio. “We first texted each other on December 24,” says Ritchkin. In a plot twist fit for the movies, her sister was also a pilot and senior manager of airport operations for United Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport. “It was the best present. I got a sister for Christmas.”
The siblings picked up as if they had always known each other. Holloway-Servedio shared details about the rest of the family (including that their biological parents had died) and invited Ritchkin to West Coast family parties to meet aunts, uncles, and cousins. “Most of these people didn’t know about me,” Ritchkin says. “But it was so normal. It was as if we were always a part of each other.”
And though she never met her biological mother — a 30-year human resources professional for an airline union — Ritchkin feels her presence through the relationship with her sister. “Did my mother telepathically help me get into this career and learn all this? Maybe.”
Picture: Spirit Airlines
Posted on June 12, 2023