The Sun’s Anna Pier talks with Sonoma pilot and global adventurer Yayoi West.
You were raised in Japan. How long have you been in Sonoma?
For thirty years. I first came here to take classes to be a glider pilot. I wanted to be a pilot.
How did you decide you wanted to fly?
That is so interesting. One inspiration happened. When I was 20, I was studying accounting. I was driving with a friend when a big jet flew low over us. It was so exciting, the sound, I said, “I am going to be a pilot.” This was before the Internet, so I went to libraries for info on how to become a pilot. The training was very expensive in Japan. And at that time the Japanese Air Force didn’t take women as pilots. I first went to Sacramento, to study for the FAA private pilot license.
That was a huge adventure.
I’ll never forget the day I came to the U.S. I didn’t really understand English. I had to run in the airport in L.A. to get my flight to Sacramento. The door was just closing and I jumped into the plane, ticket in hand. Being Asian, I looked very young, and the flight attendant was worried whether someone was meeting me at the airport. A Japanese family picked me up there. I had never even spoken to them, it was arranged by my agent in Japan. They took me to my flight school in Sacramento, where I stayed.
You were brave!
I’m glad I did it. It took me about three months to get my pilot certificate. But I had to go back to Japan, where I was not able to fly to get the 250 hours needed to be certified. I did get it, much later. At the time I worked for about two years, then decided to learn to be a glider pilot, so I asked for two weeks off. I went back to Sacramento, but it turned out all the glider instructors were away at a racing competition, so they sent me to Sonoma Skypark. The glider pilot program didn’t work out there, but Harry West, who had the Flight School on the first floor, helped me by taking me to another glider school, in Vacaville. I stayed at the Sonoma Hotel. The bathrooms were down the hall.
So that was your introduction to Sonoma.
I saw the 4th of July parade from the window. I loved the Plaza, the ducks and chickens. The Skypark Flight School person who had helped me had a small sightseeing office on the Plaza. One day I was walking by, eating junk food, and he saw me and said, “Don’t eat that. I’ll take you for a good dinner.” I wanted to stay in Sonoma because of him. So I sent a fax to my work to request a longer break. I did go back, but eventually, Harry and I married, here in Sonoma.
So you think it was fate.
Yes. And we were very happy. Our friends said we were “velcroed” together. But Harry passed in 2001. I was crying at home for three years, but then I got interested in expeditions.
What was the next step?
I got interested in building a spacecraft, for the Ansari XPRIZE. I was so excited to hear about a privately-funded spacecraft to send humans to space. I realized I needed to know more, so I took classes at Napa Community College, to be able to apply to study astrophysics at UC Berkeley. I was accepted at UCB and started my studies there, but paused them in order to travel, especially to be available to go to space with Virgin Galactic. I’m signed up with them. I haven’t gone to space yet. But I did go on two big expeditions that made me more interested in this planet, noticing nature on earth.
Tell me more.
In 2016 I went to Antarctica with former astronaut Buzz Aldrin. It was on his bucket list to go, and I joined his trip. The rocks in Antarctica were really amazing. And then, in 2018, I ice camped for three days at the North Pole.
How were you able to do these things?
You did everything you could to live your dream. To get fit, in 2015 I did the sprint triathlon in Monterey Bay – biking, running and swimming. In 2016 I walked in the NYC Marathon. To get ready for the North Pole, I did ice training in Australia, Sweden and Norway. When I had proved I was ready, in mid-April 2018 I flew to Oslo, then Svalbard Island, and from there to the ice base at the North Pole. A Russian company runs the expeditions. They air-drop all the materials for camping and for building the runway. You know, there’s only one sunrise a year at the North Pole, in March. So it was always daylight for the three days. The sun sets there on September 21. I was fascinated by so many different kinds of ice.
What are your new dreams?
This is a period of me giving back to the community that I love. Since 2018 I have been a Solar System Ambassador for NASA. There are about 1,000 of us volunteers, doing outreach about what NASA is doing. NASA gives us online trainings about 3x/month, and sends materials to hand out. The training includes more learning about our planet. I recently did a couple of presentations as an Ambassador at the Sonoma library, and I hope to start a series there.
You’re very busy at Sonoma Skypark.
I am teaching the Ground School portion of pilot training at the Skypark, which is a public airport. Because I volunteer, we can offer the class for free. It’s a three-month program, but it is an ongoing class every Monday from 6-8pm in the Harry F. West Memorial Clubhouse. And the Skypark gives free rides to local children every second Sunday. It’s the Young Eagles program. We hope they will get a love of general aviation – not military, not commercial. And this month, we started to build an aircraft! This is through the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA). I’m the Secretary of Chapter 1268, the Sonoma Skycrafters. It started in 1992 and has 60 members.
Any last thoughts for our readers?
I really hope more young people will come out to fly, and maybe work on building an aircraft, at the Skypark, at 21870 8th St E. Especially girls.