Two months ago, 19-year-old Claire Wright was sitting in a Las Vegas airport, when she suddenly decided she would become a commercial helicopter pilot, even though she had never before flown a chopper.
Two weeks ago, the newly enrolled flight student proved she had the chops to be an aviator, when she flew a small helicopter 2,000 miles to Tennessee over a four-day stretch.
“If I decide I’m going to do something, I commit myself fully and do what I can to make it fun,” said Wright, a Vanguard University communications student, aspiring singer/songwriter with songs on iTunes, and a 2013 Miss California High School.
“That’s just how I roll.”
Wright grew up in Northern California, where she occasionally flew small planes in high school, but she gave up flight because of the expense. After her February Las Vegas epiphany, Wright emailed Revolution Aviation at John Wayne Airport, and 10 days later she began flying helicopters.
A month after her first flight, she signed up to copilot the cross-country trip with Revolution Aviation chief pilot and flight instructor Mark Robinson. On April 1, the two took off, flying 90 mph, 500 feet above the ground, over eight states, hopping among 17 airports for 23 hours of flight time – a real bird’s eye view of America.
“The eastern part of Texas was stunning,” Wright said. “It was green everywhere.”
The trip was not a joyride, though. It was a maintenance run to transport an 875-pound Robinson R22 to Sevierville, Tenn., – where Sevier County Chopper, the largest helicopter overhaul facility on the East Coast, can refurbish the machine in three months. Robinson makes the trip to Tennessee a couple of times a year, often with a student by his side.
“The students get to push their endurance, but they also get to know their own mental and physical capacity, which is a great skill in aviation, because you never want to push the limit,” Robinson said. “Claire’s control of the aircraft and skill on the radio went up significantly from day one to day four. It basically fast-tracked her to where she needs to be.”
Women represent only 6 percent of commercial pilots, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and Robinson said female helicopter pilots are even more scarce than that.
Wright knows that she is a rarity in the aviation world, and that motivates her. Her goal is to continue to move quickly, earning her private pilot license by summer, which would allow her to fly solo, then onto her commercial license, and then her flight instructor certificate. The education will cost her $60,000, and she has begun applying for scholarships and set up a GoFundMe campaign to help pay for the remainder.
After leaving the helicopter in Tennessee, Wright bought a plane ticket back to California, and on the trip home, wound up sitting in the same Las Vegas terminal where she first decided to pursue piloting, thinking about how far she had already come.
“I love when life is moving,” Wright said. “I never want to have a closed mind, and aviation gives you a new perspective every day. It’s unlike any other career.”