"Come on in!" Kristy Armstrong calls from her office, adjacent to her home in Charlestown. Her three dogs - all rescues - bound around the yard. Armstrong's smile is warm and expansive. Her cropped blond hair shines. She is quick to laugh, and is fond of things with keys - pianos and keyboards. She favors leopard print and fuzzy hats, and jokes about how she came to her profession, returning to school at age 37 after stints as a construction manager and lobbyist. She smiles. "I liked the idea of initials after my name," she says.
Clients and friends describe Armstrong, "The Fabulous Flying CPA" as 'the least accountant-type accountant' you'll ever meet. In the popular imagination, accountants get a pretty bad rap - humorless, stuffy, stiff-in-the-collar, "irrepressibly drab and awful," notes the famous Monty Python sketch about the chartered accountant who yearns to be a lion tamer in the recesses of his dull, dry heart. But if ever a stereotype was brought to its knees and made to answer for its inaccuracies, Armstrong would be the woman to do it.
Her gregarious style is matched by a sense of purpose; the conviction that she can take her clients by the hand and guide them through the morass of paperwork known as tax season. Because make no mistake, she likes the technical aspects of her work. She enjoys making the numbers add up.
Still, she says the best part are the friendships she builds with her clients.
"I get hugs! All day long! And I'm a part of so many people's teams," she says.
Armstrong believes in teams. And she understands the stress of running a small business can get overwhelming. A common scenario is that people get disorganized. They put off filing taxes one year and then the years start ticking by. They come to her, anxious and apprehensive, but wanting to get back on track.
"Money is a hard, hard subject to talk about," she explains. "Someone will say 'I haven't said this out loud to anyone but I haven't filed my taxes in years.' And I say 'It's OK, we can fix this.' It is very personal. People say things to me in confidence that they don't even say to their significant others.
She recalls one client - "a young guy, a good person" - who was panicking over what his tax situation would mean for his upcoming marriage.
"It is an honor and privilege to be able to help someone in that situation. I feel like a trusted friend."
Because the most common problem she confronts in her work, she explains, has nothing to do with bookkeeping.
"It is fear."
Kristy Armstrong knows something about overcoming fear.
She knows how it stands in the way of the things people want and need to do for themselves.
And she knows fear in a more intimate way. Not too long ago, she had to wrestle it to the ground to get at something she really wanted: Her pilot's license.
Armstrong's dad was a flight instructor in the Navy and a jazz drummer who played with the legendary Dave Brubeck. He died when she was 6.
"I wanted to learn to fly to be closer to him," she says. "I wasn't going to be a briliant jazz drummer," she laughs - "so flying was the other option."
She is now the treasurer of Snoopy's Group Flying Club, which flies out of Westerly Airport. But that day was a long time coming. She took her first try at age 18, with "a flight instructor who didn't think women should be flying airplanes. He tried to scare me. And it worked."
"He said, 'let me show you what happens when a plane loses an engine.'" she explains. "And he cut the engine. Of course, nothing happens but I didn't know that at the time."
She resumed lessons in 2003, with a "wonderful" instructor. But fear of failure dogged her.
"Normally it takes 40 hours [of flight instruction] before you are ready to solo. It took me 80. Because I was chicken."
Finally, her instructor told her he couldn't let her go up with the examiner until she could hit turbulence "and not scream."
But she kept at it. She sometimes cried before lessons, she says matter-of-factly. She sometimes thought, "I can't do this." Then she would dry her eyes and head out to the airfield at T.F. Green Airport in Warwick and get back behind the controls.
The tears gave way to slowly dawning confidence, which gave way to an excitement and exhiliration she still feels every time she takes off. She seems almost lost for words when she describes being in the air. "It's so cool," she says, "SO cool."
Armstrong has had some pretty memorable experiences in the air - like the first time an air traffic controller called her "captain." And the first time she had to land a plan on an icy runway - "I remember thinking, 'Hmmm. I wonder how a plane handles on ice,'" she laughs.
It has also allowed her to work for cause near to her heart — the rescue of abandoned and neglected animals. She is a memer of Pilots n Paws, an all-volunteer group which coordinates the transport of animals on "death row" in southern shelters to no-kill faciliites and foster homes in the northeast. The animals she sees are in a sorry state, emacidated and often scared - she once got stung by a wasp, trying to coax a frightened puppy out of a thicket. But looking at her photographs of the dogs during transport, you almost wouldn't suspect the horror of the lives they are leaving behind. On the plane, the pups are curled up on one another and napping in the sun.
Most significantly, Armstrong has felt the connection with her dad that she chased through all those difficult lessons - the feeling that she was not alone in the cockpit, she says, that someone else was with her at the controls.
And this has become her guiding impulse; to take friends under her wing and move confidently in the direction of the cloudless days that wait for anyone who places their trust in another, and confronts their fears.
In every area of her life, it seems, Armstrong is a natural pilot.
Note: Snoopy's Group Flying Club, which meets the third Thursday of every month at Dooney Aviation at Westerly Airport, is accepting new members. Find them on Facebook, or email FlyingRICPA@aol.com