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  • Jocelyn Escourrou
05/17/2010 07:00:00

Techers Take to the Sky

International Learn to Fly Day debuted this past Saturday, May 15, and Caltech's Aero Association (AACIT) observed the occasion by offering a free flying lesson to any interested member of the Caltech/JPL community. One of the Institute's more venerable clubs, AACIT has helped train more than 1,000 private pilots since it was established in 1966 by a handful of students, faculty, and staff.

International Learn to Fly Day was conceived by a consortium of pilots, companies, governments, and organizations from countries around the world to raise interest in flying and to encourage current pilots to get others involved in aviation.

AACIT vice president David Werntz acted as the informal coordinator for the club's Learn to Fly Day activities, matching the participants up with club members who would be their instructors for the day. Five Techers were selected to participate in the inaugural event: Jocelyn Escourrou, a first-year grad student in aeronautics; Himanshu Mishra, a second-year grad student in materials science; Richard Norte, a grad student in the PMA division; Hoi Yee Nam, a  junior; and Adnan Ansar, a staff member in the Computer Vision group at JPL.

Probably the least-surprising prospective pilot was Escourrou, who came to Caltech to study jet and space propulsion under the aegis of the Institute's exchange program with France's Ecole Polytechnique. "As a child," he says, "I dreamt of being a pilot, but my eyesight turned out to be too weak. I am, however, still interested at doing it as a hobby—why not someday with a private pilot license?" The Caltech course PA 80, Pilot Training, which covers the theoretical basics and rules of flying, inspired Escourrou to apply for Learn to Fly Day. His expectations for Saturday? "I hope that somehow flying in a small plane, and piloting it at some point, will help me to actually feel the things I have been working on—much more than being a passenger in a big jet aircraft, anyway."

Himanshu Mishra, on the other hand, admits that flying has "no direct link" to his educational pursuits—he's working with Professors Bill Goddard and Michael Hoffmann to develop materials for a multifunctional and robust platform for clean water. He says that even though he understands "the concepts of lift, drag, and basic fluid properties, flight still stays magical in experience. To be able to take off and land on your own is pretty remarkable." Mishra has been fascinated with flying ever since one of his mentors in India took him up in a microlight aircraft several years ago. He decided to apply for Learn to Fly Day at the suggestion of a former roommate who was working toward a private pilot's license. His instructor Saturday was Werntz, with whom he had "an amazing time."

The organizers of International Learn to Fly Day want it to be an annual event. If that comes to pass, you can bet that another batch of intrepid Techers will eagerly take to the sky next year. 

Written by Barbara DiPalma