When people hear I’m enrolling in a flight program for a private pilot certificate, I find myself being asked the question: “why do you want to be a pilot?” and the only answer I have is “I truly don’t know other than the fact that I’ve always wanted to do it.”
I’m going back to analyze how this whole thing started. You may skip ahead if you’d like.
Like so many families, I flew on my first airplane on a family trip (to Disney World). I think I was 2 years old – I only remember the taxi ride to the airport and a hotel room at Disney (no plane related memories). Figures. Up until college, I only took more 2 commercial flights – both were round-trip Atlanta to Hong Kong. Unlike so many lucky kids, I never spent any time a private airfield, never went up in the plane of a family friend.
At the end of middle school, I needed to choose an elective for high school. Chorus and home ec were too girly for me – too expected. I decided to go with Air Force JROTC. Why? Because they had a summer course I could take. Yeah. I was *that* nerdy. I couldn’t wait to go to summer school for an extra credit on my transcript. Ha, shameful. Don’t tell anyone.
One of our first assignments was a personal essay: “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?” For some reason, my mind gravitated towards the space shuttle. ‘How does one start working at NASA anyways?’
In writing that essay, I stumbled across a NASA webpage listing opportunities for students of all ages. To my great surprise, there was a opportunity specifically designed for high school students: the now defunct NASA SHARP (Summer High-School Apprenticeship Research Program). I HAD to do it! In the summer before 10th grade, I got a research opportunity at Georgia Tech working with a laser vibrometer to measure damage in metal plates – ‘futuristic’ technology that would hopefully allow non-destructive, non-invasive, and quick damage detection in airplanes and space shuttles (important even before the days of Columbia).
Long story short, NASA SHARP helped me get into the Georgia Academy of Mathematics, Engineering, and Science [GAMES] (name now Georgia Academy of Aviation, Mathematics, Engineering, and Science) – a dual enrollment program at Middle Georgia College (MGC, now known as MGSC) that allows high school students to get an associate’s degree at the same time they are finishing the last 2 years of their high school diploma. Back in ~2006, there was no aviation component to MGC. They were in negotiations with the nearby Georgia Aviation & Technical College to join forces though. More on this in a moment.
Being a mathematics major at MGC helped me get into the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program (GHP) in the summer after 11th grade – a summer school for nerds. Take 600 of the ‘most talented’ high school students in Georgia, send them to live on the Valdosta State University campus for a summer. There, students ‘major’ in 1 subject, ‘minor’ in another. I went for mathematics. One could also go for physics, chemistry, music, dance, etc. Being a dork, I remember it as a truly magical time. It was incredible to be surrounded by so many talented and brilliant people – people much smarter than I. I’m convinced that the only reason I was selected for GHP was because I was already a college math major. We had classes in combinatorics, number theory, non-Euclidean geometry, and so much more. It always seemed like I was the only math major that had never heard of any of those topics before.
Wait, where was I? Oh yes, GHP obviously wanted to funnel students into college prep tracks. They had a college fair with all the Georgia schools. I have no idea why, but there was also a booth for Embry-Riddle (Florida school if you were curious). *cue dramatic music, dun dun dum*
Georgia Tech, UGA, & Mercer had huge crowds of overachieving students talking over each other to show off just how much they knew. I was going to join that crowd, really, I was…but I found myself distracted by the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) table. I am always ashamed to admit this, but what drew me to that table were the little airplane clips used to hold together their information packet. Ah sue me, I’m a girl.
The ERAU admissions counselor was at the only table without a single interested student. And thinking back on it, I’m not surprised. I’d never heard of ERAU and if it wasn’t for GHP, I probably never would have. I was greeted me with a knowing look – she probably wanted to ask “do you need help finding the Georgia Tech table?’ But no, I had to be polite. “Tell me about Embry-Riddle,” I said.
She was so excited to talk about the flight program! And the award winning aerospace engineering program! But no. I wanted to be a scientist. I was dead set against being an engineer. I was ready to swipe that airplane clip and leave, but wait, “Did you know that Embry-Riddle has a Space Physics program?” Oh boy. We spent the rest of the fair talking about the program, the campus, the ocean. I still don’t know why, but this school (that no one in the room had ever heard of) had me hooked. I started my application that night.
Back to GAMES, MGC, and the Georgia Aviation & Technical College (GAvTC). As part of GAvTC student recruitment, we had a GAMES day trip out there my senior year [high school] and it was the first time I went up in a single engine plane. I got to sit up front and do large lazy turns in the air. Totally exhilarating, but I wasn’t destined to learn flight in Georgia as I was a graduating MGC student that spring.
I *knew* I was going to Embry-Riddle. Come on, a space physics program?!?! Could it get any more perfect? I never knew such a thing existed. 7 years later, I’m still astonished it exists. Not something I’d ever expect a college to offer. I assumed that if I wanted to work in space sciences one day (recall that old AFJROTC essay), I’d have to go into general physics or chemistry, work myself crazy, one day apply for NASA, and when hired, have to spend years learning all that space stuff.
Added perk of ERAU? It’s a famous flight school. How cool would it be to learn to fly at the most famous flight school in the world?! Yeah, that excitement quickly went away when I got to campus and heard other freshmen talking about the flight costs at Riddle (on top of that wonderful private university tuition we were paying). Sigh. It always sounded stupid to me that kids were/are willing to take out a 100k+ loan to learn to fly at ERAU. As of today, 9-9-13, I feel a little differently. We’ll come back to this in my second post.
Not being able to afford to fly at ERAU is the reason I never talked about flying stuff/planes with any of my friends and the pilots around me (~half the students at ERAU are pilots, ~half are aerospace engineers). I never even asked anyone to take me up on a cross country flight with them. I suppose I was just protecting myself from the jealously that was sure to follow.
Anyways, life goes on. I graduated with a masters in engineering physics from ERAU and am now here in Fairbanks Alaska doing my PhD in Space Physics.
Alaska. Home to the highest per capita number of pilots in the United States? Something like that? Shoot. I’m in trouble now. Time to break open the piggy bank.
I’ve been able to stretch my graduate student salary pretty well. With so many pilots around, it would be foolish not to learn flight in Fairbanks right? My budget spreadsheet kept telling me that I would have my necessary $10k saved in fall 2013. Still, that’s a lot of money to spend on a hobby. I kept wondering if it was sane to pursue this.
That’s when I had the brilliant idea that if I passed the written PhD comprehensive exam in August 2013, I would reward myself with flight school. I’m pretty sure that part of me never expected to pass this year. But I did. Time to put my money where my mouth is. But after such a ridiculous test (the 16hr comps), I didn’t feel like interviewing flight instructors, reviewing the syllabi of flight schools, school visits to make sure the buildings weren’t falling down (you know, all the things you should do before deciding to pay a school a bunch of money – things I’ve never done for any of the universities I went to, oops). Plus, I really didn’t want to be the only person I knew who was going through a flight program. But no one else seems as willing as I am to put out the money to do it right now.
So I put it off and went to visit friends in Dallas.
A certain pair of these friends happen to be current air force officers who met at ERAU. They had the cutest aeronautical/patriotic-themed wedding a few years ago. These lucky people just bought their own Cessna 182. And were flying themselves to Dallas. What?!?
They were great enough to take us up for a quick air tour of Dallas. So cool! And the kick in the pants I needed to actually start looking at flight schools.