Air Force captain tells students about aviation opportunities
U.S. Air Force Capt. Nichole Stilwell recently described the day in the life of a pilot to a group of students at the Denbigh High School Aviation Academy.
Stilwell, who has been stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton since 2015, explained how she puts on layers of protective gear, including a sealed flight suit and long johns, to prepare for winter flights. She participates in briefings that detail assignments, which usually involve live simulations as the enemy trying to keep pilots from their goal.
The nature of the assignments helps build a sense of camaraderie with the men she works with, who look at her as a fellow pilot. As one of four women in her unit, Stilwell said she’s experienced very little to no sexism on the job, she said.
“An aircraft is the ‘great equalizer,’” Stilwell said. The jet does not recognize a man or woman, only whether the person had command of its controls, she told roughly 35 girls who attended a question-and-answer session with her at the academy on Dec. 20 as part of Aviation Academy’s magnet program. The magnet program is open to all incoming high school students in Newport News and covers four career tracks — security, flight, engineering and maintenance. Admission into the program is done through a lottery.
One student asked Stilwell how she felt the first time she got into a plane.
“I was nervous, but really excited,” Stilwell said.
She flew with an instructor in the rear seat in that first flight, but had full control of the jet. The captain said her flight simulations and classroom experience prepared her for the cockpit.
The students could do a job like hers, or one of the many other jobs available in aviation as long as they were determined and pushed themselves, Stilwell said.
“If you have a positive attitude and work hard, everything will work itself out,” Stilwell said. As a student, Stilwell received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in mathematics before her military training and flight school. The next step for Stilwell is training on how to fly F-22 fighter jets, she said.
Aviation academy director Aaron Smith said he recruited Stilwell to come talk to students to show them a role model in the field they study at the magnet school based at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.
“I wanted to make sure our ladies know they can do this by seeing someone like them,” Smith said. This is the second year pilots and others with aviation careers have made presentations to students. A similar event is planned in the spring, Smith added.