Keystone’s Legendary Pilot, Phyllis Upchurch, Retires From Flying

Phyllis Upchurch may not be entirely comfortable with the title, but she is somewhat of an aviation legend.  Phyllis started out selling used, single-engine airplanes in order to subsidize her flying lessons.  She must have been a pretty good salesperson, because not only did she become a professional pilot, but Phyllis has acted as Chief Pilot for 4 aircraft operators throughout the course of her aviation career and has flown over 14,000 hours, making her one of Keystone Aviation’s most experienced pilots. Unfortunately for Keystone (and the rest of the aviation community), Phyllis has decided to retire from flying to pursue her hobbies – some old, some new.

Growing up in the small town of Raymond, Mississippi, Phyllis was inspired to become a pilot by her father who, on Sundays, would take her to Jackson “to the big airport, where they had concrete runways and big airplanes.” Phyllis was always afraid of flying, but her father’s love of airplanes instilled a fascination in her.  So much so, that years later she would explore her fear of flying and it would change her life forever.


Phyllis moved across the country to Salt Lake City, Utah in 1974.  There she would discover a new side of herself.  At age 35 she declared, “I’m too old to be afraid of anything.” Phyllis saw an ad in the local newspaper for a “demo flight” and decided she would conquer her fear of flying by piloting a Cessna 152.   After the “demo” flight, assuming she had flown the whole time (in truth the instructor was flying), she wasn’t afraid at all.  “I thought it was the most enchanting thing I had ever done,” she said. Apparently it wasn’t the flying, but not being in control of the flight that scared Phyllis.

It was after this realization that Phyllis decided she would become a professional pilot, which, at the time, was a very progressive career choice for a woman. However, being one of the few female pilots never intimidated Phyllis.  In fact, it would be female pilots in Utah who would help shape her career.  Nancy Ruling, a prominent figure for women aviators in Utah and the Chief Flight Instructor at Interwest Aviation, was her first  boss.  Barbara Hepner was one of Phyllis’ first mentors in the LearJet; together they called themselves the “Thelma and Louise” of the sky.

Although she is no longer flying, Phyllis will retain a part-time role as the Director of Training for Keystone Aviation’s flight department.  Thus, she will continue to influence current and future aviators.

When asked if she would miss flying after 40 years of being a pilot, Phyllis answered, “it’s the clients I will miss the most.” Her interaction with passengers and making people feel comfortable flying was what she found most gratifying. Nonetheless, Phyllis is looking forward to spending more time at home.  She recently began singing in a choir, and now spends more time doing things she loves like playing piano,raising her dogs and cheering on her beloved Ole Miss. She also has a bucket list of places she would like to travel, with someone else doing the piloting for a change.