Elizabeth McCormick was told she couldn't:

  • Be a helicopter pilot.
  • Join the Army to be a helicopter pilot (by an Army recruiter).
  • Go to flight school (by a physician).
  • Be be a helicopter pilot (by an instructor).
  • Be a helicopter pilot (by her husband, who then filed for divorce).
  • Be a single mother in flight school (by a superior officer).
  • Be a helicopter pilot.

But McCormick could, and did, she said during the keynote speech at the 10th annual Wyoming Women's Expo at the Casper Events Center on Friday.

Starting with the recruiter, she had to ask herself, "'Do I believe him or do I believe me?'"

McCormick had to jump over a bunch of hurdles on her way to becoming a Blackhawk pilot: policies, procedures, traditions, permission, and not a few condescending "little girl" snarky comments.

She persevered, learned that "practice makes permanent," and had a successful career as a pilot until an injury ended it. She has flown high-level government officials including the Secretary of Defense, supported UN peacekeeping efforts in Kosovo, and won numerous awards and commendations.

McCormick has since parlayed those experiences into a business consultant, author and motivational speaker with her Dallas-area Soar 2 Success International.

She boiled down many of her experiences to inspirational quips:

  • "It's up to you to determine your flight path."
  • "You have gifts the world needs."
  • "You have to ask yourself what you want."
  • "Do you know where you're going?"
  • "'No' is a complete sentence."

McCormick, mimicking imaginary controls with her hands, explained the countless maneuvers and responsibilities involved in piloting a Blackhawk. "It's like multitasking on steroids," she said.

But learning to fly, and the difficult technique of hovering 10 feet off the ground, doesn't help when supervisors and instructors are screaming at you through your headphones in your helmet.

McCormick's instructor at flight school couldn't flunk her because she was a woman, but he could make her life miserable enough to want to quit, she said.

For six weeks, her instructor gave her failing marks -- punctuated with put-downs like, "'a monkey can fly better than you'" -- for her performance despite her best intentions, she said.

The next week, a new instructor arrived and pilot training was about to get much better, McCormick said. "Someone was going to teach me instead of berate me."

She learned more in five days than during the entire time with the previous instructor, she said.

Just as McCormick was finishing flight school, her "starter husband" called her and told her to quit the Army and come home and be a wife.

She had to make a choice, and he made it for her by filing for divorce.

Not long after that, she found she was pregnant, had her daughter -- now 19 and a student at Texas A&M -- and charted new territory in the Army as a single mom.

McCormick urged her listeners to teach their daughters they're important, and model that by nurturing others while taking care of themselves.

"You lead yourself first; it starts with you," she said.