Air Force cap­tain tells stu­dents about avi­a­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - REMEBERING - BY MICHELE CANTY

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.

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