Hubble Repairman’s Daughter
WADSWORTH, Ohio — Shannon Smith’s got flying genes. At 15-years old, Shannon began flight lessons with Norma Gay, a Wadsworth, Ohio flight instructor who was selected personally by Shannon’s father, Steve.
Though she can’t fly solo until she’s 16, or get her private pilot’s license until she’s 17, Shannon is testing the waters—or skies, if you will—but according to Norma, “she’s hooked.” Shannon is half the median age of most pilots in the U.S, and does not have her driver’s license quite yet either.
A father’s perspective
Watching Shannon preflight the two-seat Cessna trainer at Skypark Airport (15G) in his cargo shorts and a baseball cap, Steve is just another doting father, taking photos and cheering his daughter on from the sidelines. As it turns out, he knows a thing or two about flying.
Astronaut Steve Smith has flown 16 million miles in space, rode in four space shuttles and taken seven space walks during his career at NASA. As Payload Commander for the Space Shuttle Discovery, he was responsible for repairing the Hubble Space Telescope to restore its scientific capabilities.
“Flying into space does affect you…you really can’t help but look back at Earth and not be affected by that. We see how fragile the Earth is and…we don’t see borders from space,” Steve said.
Steve’s love of aviation inspired a similar inclination in Shannon. “I think that’s what parenting is all about—all of us want our kids’ lives to be better and we’re always looking for that neat thing to show them,” Steve said. “Having the ability to command an aircraft is going to help her in whatever discipline she ends up in.”
From the Netherlands to Ohio for flight training
Currently residing in the Netherlands, the Smith family is anything but typical. Steve, his wife Peggy, and their two children, Brian and Shannon, lived in France for four years, where they each became fluent in French. The children attend international schools where Americans represent a small percentage of the student body.
While Steve moved his family to Europe for the international experience, he admits that some things are simply unavailable abroad. “One of the hard things about being in Europe is that aviation isn’t anywhere close to being as accessible as it is in the U.S., and it’s much more expensive. Americans who fly don’t realize how easy, accessible, and affordable it is in America,” Steve said.
Often shocked by his daughter’s involvement in aviation, Steve’s European colleagues find the limitless, trailblazing spirit of Americans admirable. “And so when I tell my colleagues that my daughter has flown, they see that difference…it’s something that Europeans don’t even imagine they can do.”
A role model for a new pilot.
One thing Steve appreciates about aviation in the U.S. is the small, tightly-knit community that builds around the love of flying. In fact, Steve chose Skypark Airport in Wadsworth because his wife Peggy’s family knows the owner of the airport. Dan Weltzien is amazing individual in his own right. (See All in the Skypark Family by Jacquie Marino.)
Steve also wanted an experienced, strict, and tactful female pilot to teach Shannon, and he found all of those qualities and more in CFI Norma Gay.
“The beautiful thing about aviation is the people who are involved in it absolutely love it, and have a real interest in sharing it,” Steve explained.
As a teenager, acquiring the skills to command a small aircraft appealed to Steve. He said, “We had a family friend who took me flying out of San Jose International (KSJC) when I was probably 13 or 14, and that was it, you know? I just absolutely loved it. Dialing in an ILS frequency, trimming the airplane, and talking on the radio.” The pilot said, ‘Hey Steve, when [the tower] calls with this information, say this back to him.’ I mean, it was awesome.” Now, Steve, as father, wants Shannon to develop her safety, focus, and prioritizing abilities as a “personal challenge in learning to handle complex situations.”
If you can fly here, you can fly anywhere
Wadsworth’s Skypark Airport is a far cry from San Jose International, but it presents its own unique challenges to a novice pilot. The runway here is relatively short, and it is particularly narrow, requiring sharp attention when taxiing from the ramp and flight line. Powerlines and trees on the approach and departure ends of the runway require extra vigilance on take-offs and landings. And, it is an airpark, so there is a lot activity and local traffic because pilots actually live at the airport in condominiums that are both a residence and hangar for their airplanes. This is part of the charm of Skypark. The relaxed atmosphere and low cost of flight training has attracted student pilots from as far away as France and Belgium.
After her flying lesson and visiting family in the area, Steve and Shannon headed to Ellington Field in Houston. Formerly known as Ellington Air Force Base, it is a civil/military airport that supports the operations of the United States military, NASA, Continental Express, United Parcel Service and general aviation. Steve wanted to introduce Shannon to one of his old training aircraft–the Northrop T-38. The Talon as it is also called, was the world’s first supersonic trainer and is a favorite aircraft among NASA astronauts and military pilots.
Steve’s former colleagues at Ellington were easily convinced from Shannon’s enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge that the flying bug had bitten her as well.
According to Steve, “When they found out there was a 16-year old American girl who actually has an interest in coming in, putting on some NOMEX overalls, learning to change the oil, load the camera in the nose pod, check the pressure in the tires, refuel the airplane and carry the fire extinguisher out to the line for the engine to start up, they just said, ‘You guys gotta come back. You will be back.’”
The Smiths will continue to live in the Netherlands while Steve is assigned to the European Space Agency. When the time comes, Shannon will likely attend college in the U.S. She is still unsure of a desired field of study. But one thing is certain. Learning to fly an airplane before driving a car, coupled with some out-of-this-world experiences provided by her parents will bring distinction to her college application and help her to stand out among the crowd.
Brandi Shaffer is graduate student studying journalism at Kent State University.