Becoming a pilot and inspiring others to fly, especially young females, is a dream come true for both Stephanie Luongo, 33, an employee of the National Test Pilot School, and Erin Hambrick, 32, an employee of Scaled Composites.
With scholarships provided by the Ninety-Nines, an International Organization of Woman Pilots, they are advancing their skills and encouraging others to do the same.
Hambrick won the Ozzie Levi Memorial Scholarship from her local Antelope Valley 99s Chapter, which will help her achieve a commercial license. “I am so grateful for the 99s, they have done so much for me,” said Hambrick.
Inspired by her grandfather who was a machinist and built model airplanes, Hambrick dreamt of flying, especially huge, military aircraft; however, due to her poor eyesight, she thought flying was impossible at all levels, so she decided to do the next best thing — to design them.
Attending an air show in Camarillo, Calif., while pursuing an aeronautical engineering degree at Cal Poly, she watched a formation of T-6s and other planes. The announcer said that they were all female pilots from the 99s.
“I was really impressed of all the female pilots doing such a great job,” recalls Hambrick. Connecting with the local San Luis Obispo 99s chapter on-line, she explained that she was not a pilot but studying to be an aerospace engineer and thought she should talk to a few pilots before she was turned lose to design aircraft. “Do we have things we can share with you!” the 99s informed Hambrick.
“I started to hang out with them to learn how they interacted with their aircraft and they all encouraged me to fly, especially, Cheryl Cooney.”
Hambrick went into accelerator mode with a few lessons a day and went from solo to check ride to finish her license over senior year spring break.
“Jeannine Sparks of Pacific Aerocademy in San Luis Obispo was very encouraging and made it happen,” says Hambrick. To help pay for lessons, she washed aircraft and did office work at the flight school. “It is very expensive but if you’re willing to work hard, there are a lot of ways to help get you there.”
Working developmental flight test for Lockheed Martin on the F-35 program at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md., was a dream job out of school, although, after five years Hambrick was longing for the flying weather in California and an opportunity to participate in prototype aircraft design. She is now working in Mojave on the Stratolaunch project, which will be the largest aircraft in the world.
When asked if she ever thought she would be working on such projects, she giggles. “Life has never turned out how I thought it was going to; I’m from the Midwest [Enid, Okla.] Every day I wake up amazed and privileged to be a pilot!” She never imagined she would be working at Scaled Composites, working with great people and meeting several of her heroes, including Burt and Dick Rutan. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself; it’s all a treat.”
Her dream of becoming a traditional military pilot was unrealizable but she holds on to her passion for military aircraft, especially those from World War II.
The flight training that she does on her own helps her to be a better aircraft designer and flight test engineer. Pursuing a commercial and ultimately a CFI rating would enable her to pay it forward, just as the 99s had done for her. “To be there, to share and encourage the love of flying, to build a community, and to provide others with financial help — that’s what it is all about,” says Hambrick.
Stephanie Luongo was awarded the 99s Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship where she will receive full funding to obtain a Certified Flight Instructor certificate.
As part of the application requirements, she created a detailed plan and budget for how she would achieve the CFI and submitted it to the International organization. Out of hundreds of applicants, she was selected. “I couldn’t be more excited and more thankful!” said Luongo.
Fascinated with airplanes since she can remember, as a young girl she looked up at them and longed to be flying. On her first commercial flight she was amazed at how far she could see — “the beauty of the sky and earth, being able to see for hundreds of miles, was so amazing. I was definitely in it for the views,” explained Luongo.
Nobody in her family was an aviation enthusiast, and actually her mother was afraid of flying and thought she was a bit crazy when she told her she wanted to be a pilot. “I think it was just inside of me, I wanted to be in the sky instead of on the ground.”
Born and raised in Reno, Nev., Luongo pursued a master’s degree in electrical engineering from University of Nevada while working full time for Sierra Nevada Corporation, an aerospace and defense contractor.
A few of her workmates were pilots and owned their own aircraft. “Conversations always seemed to turn to flying and one day my boss handed me a card with an instructor’s name.”
Within eight months she had her private pilot’s license, and a few years after she continued her training by completing instrument and glider ratings.
Her first flight in a small plane was with her instructor. “It wasn’t like, am I really going to like this? It was ‘this is what I’m doing.’ And it has been the coolest thing I’ve ever done, hands down.”
Waking up early before work, Luongo would get in an hour or so of flying. “It was the most serine, tranquil time for me. Nobody was on the radio that early in the morning, it was if I had the skies all to myself.”
She transferred to Colorado and acquired her multi-engine rating while working as a flight controller and subject matter expert on the avionics system for the Dream Chaser spacecraft, which at the time was a manned lifting body in development for sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station and possibly serve as a replacement to the space shuttle.
Luongo then had a six-month deployment to Edwards Air Force Base. “That really sparked my interest in flight test and got me thinking about how I can combine my two passions, engineering and flying.”
Boeing and SpaceX ultimately won NASA’s Commercial Crew contract but all was not lost. She was accepted at the National Test Pilot School in Mojave and is enrolled in the Graduate Assistant Program.
“To me, my instructors are the guys straight out of ‘The Right Stuff;’ they are all incredible pilots and engineers. Sometimes I think we forget that they are normal people also,” she smiles.
Luongo has a three-year commitment to work at the school and one of those years she will go through the Test Pilot program as an engineer and will receive a master’s degree in Flight Test Engineering. “When all is said and done, I’ll be a graduate of an internationally-recognized test pilot school. All of the invaluable training I’m getting at NTPS will prepare me for a position in industry where I can be part of a developmental flight test program and possibly be flying on the aircraft supporting the test pilots.”
Luongo has applied with NASA to become an astronaut and is waiting on a response.
“Going to space, to be an astronaut, is the ultimate dream. I know 500 amazing, qualified people apply and they can only choose 10, but I’m still hoping.” Meanwhile, she is quite content learning from some of the best teachers in the industry and sharing her love of flying with the 99s and future pilots.