Striding forward with coffee in hand, Shaughnessy Brown ’14 sports a beige jacket that looks like it once belonged to Amelia Earhart. And it’s no surprise. Brown exudes enthusiasm whenever she speaks about flying, occasionally bursting out in laughter when she makes a wry comment. Her love of the sport is apparent.
“It’s death defying and wonderful!” Brown exclaimed, blue eyes sparkling as she described the exhilaration of the Hammerhead Stall, an aeronautical nosedive.
Brown belongs to a small but passionate population on campus: the Stanford pilots. Other students who are part of this specialized society include Nate Stockham ‘11 and Devin Banerjee ‘11. Despite their different backgrounds, these three share the same seemingly innate call to fly.
“I don’t think you’ll ever really know [why some people love flying],” Stockham said.
Along with having a basic Private Pilot License (PPL), Stockham is licensed to fly multi-engine planes and gliders as well and is eligible to be hired to fly commercially.
“It’s one of those things that [because of] some strange wiring or set of predispositions, you just know it,” he said. “It’s very fundamental. It’s just like a basic drive to eat.
When others were still caught up in driver’s education, the three student pilots were already getting a head start on operating other kinds of vehicles.
Brown began pilot training in her hometown, Idaho Falls, Ida. when she was 16 years old. She started training on crop dusters, pesticide-spraying planes that swoop low enough to tangle their wheels in vines on the ground.
“They could fly in very, very crazy patterns,” Brown said, who used the planes for training but has never actually dusted crops, she said light-heartedly.
Banerjee, former editor in chief of The Stanford Daily, discovered a love for flight even earlier in life. As a young boy, he would go to runways with his parents to watch planes take off. In high school, he was able to actively pursue his passion by working as a tutor in order to subsidize the high cost associated with getting a license. After earning $8,000 out of the required $10,000, his parents gave him their blessing and the difference to start training for a pilot’s license.
“She doesn’t tell me this,” Banerjee said, referring to his mother, “but I’ve heard from my dad and my sister that for the time I’m flying, she can’t do anything. So she might be at work…but she’ll sit around waiting for my call.”
“That’s why I can’t ever fly up here [at Stanford],” he added.
Stockham’s parents had similar misgivings initially but have now warmed up to the idea of having a pilot for a son, especially as it gives them first-class passenger seats and a bird’s-eye view of the world. Right before the start of the school year, his parents joined him to traverse the country from his hometown of Birmingham, Ala. all the way to Stanford. It was his longest flight ever, one which took two days because of the limited capabilities of his small aircraft.
“It goes about 130 miles per hour,” Stockham said. “And there’s just a range limitation. You can go about 700 nautical miles on a full tank, but you don’t want to push that. So you end up doing 300 or 400 mile legs.”
Putting in the hours
The nonchalant tone that the students maintain while describing their harrowing experiences in the sky and the ease with which they use aeronautical jargon, such as “airspace” and “VORs” (Very High Frequency Omni Range), are reflective of how extensive required training is for students to earn flying certification.
Pilots must have a minimum of 40 hours of flying time before they can take the pilot’s test, which includes written, oral and practical components.
“A lot of very stupid things can go wrong,” Brown said. “They have you practice a turn around a point, for example. Well, what happens if you choose a point that actually moves? Like a cow on a field, that’s a beautiful point! And then you’re like, is the cowing moving? The cow is moving. Minus one.”
This minor detail still slightly rankles Brown, who opted for what appeared to be a stationary semi-truck in one of her practical exams, which turned out not to be stationary at all.
Extensive training has come in handy for these student pilots, such as when Banerjee was faced with making a split-second decision in the air. After countless hours in a classroom learning flight safety and many more seated besides an instructor in flight, he was ready to embark on his first long-distance solo flight, a required and highly anticipated milestone on the path to obtaining a private license.
Banerjee was flying from Van Nuys Airport just north of Los Angeles to another airport about 100 miles away in Bakersfield. Although encountering a mountain pass was supposed to be his only obstacle, an unexpected Southern California fire required him to make a critical decision in the air.
“I was coming up to this mountain, and suddenly the smoke descended or something, and I found myself in the smoke,” Banerjee said. “And it wasn’t just that I couldn’t see…I knew I was coming up to a mountain.”
Weighing the slight but catastrophic chance of death against the disappointment and annoyance of having to re-do his solo, Banerjee opted to turn back, a choice which may seem obvious to a bystander, but to the budding pilot, it is not so simple.
“That’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, both in flying and not in flying,” Banerjee said.
The aeronautical world is heavily male dominated, a fact that Brown was quick to discover in training. To her, however, this was not a deterrent; on the contrary, it spurred her on to prove herself, especially after growing up in the traditional, gender-segregated town of Idaho Falls.
“Girls weren’t really encouraged to go into engineering as much,” Brown said. “They were expected to stay home. My friends are starting to get married. So it was very nice to enter a very male industry.”
On training flights with male instructors, Brown grew frustrated with questions she felt were patronizing such as “Are you feeling seasick?” and “Do you want to stop?” Brown recalled one point when her instructor, an ex-Navy Seal, yelled at her to be more assertive. She acquiesced and swung the plane around in a fifty-degree bank, proving her assertiveness quite convincingly.
Brown, Stockham and Banerjee commonly noted their love of night flying. Whether it is the beauty of the lights on the runway or the extra challenge, the high risk associated with such flights do not keep the nighttime from being a favorite time to fly.
“It’s just incredible…and it has a kind of desolate terror, because when you go flying next to the Pacific Ocean, you can’t see anything,” Stockham said. “It’s just a flatness that opens up into nothing. And you’re kind of hooking yourself onto the lights of the city above you, and you have this abyss on your left. It’s an entirely different world.”