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Earning Her Wings: Mount Carmel teen works every day to achieve dream of becoming a pilot

Published: 9:01 AM, 11/05/2012 Last updated: 9:15 AM, 11/05/2012

Author: Joel Spears / Managing Editor
Source: The Rogersville Review

Sixteen-year-old Rachael Barkley took her first flight at age 12 and she's been hooked ever since.  On October 4, the Mount Carmel teen became the first NJROTC cadet at Volunteer High School to earn her solo wings - and she doesn't plan to stop anytime soon.

"My friends are like, 'Whoa, Rachael, you can't even drive a car yet, but you're flying a plane,'" she joked.  "That's probably the biggest thing I get teased with. It's hilarious, but that's the next step."

Rachael received a solo scholarship, thanks to her parents and the FLIGHT Foundation, and a grant from the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission. Cadet Barkley soloed in only 8.3 hours as the 106th solo student overall in a program recently recognized as one of the nation's best. Rachael also became the youngest cadet to solo, performing the feat on her 16th birthday.

Her mother, Stacey Barkley, said, "We have a very determined, responsible daughter.  She's wanted to fly since she was young, so just seeing her attain these dreams is exciting, but for a parent it's also scary to see your child fly off into the sky and think, 'she has to land this thing!'  But she does wonderfully."

Rachael said she became interested in flying in 2009 when she first joined the Civil Air Patrol.  Today, in ROTC, she has the opportunity to participate in activities where she is able to get serious about flying.

"I know the ROTC instructor at Sullivan South High School, Lt. Col. Bill Pawley," Rachael said.  "He talked to us about the ROTC FLIGHT Foundation Program where he has a grant from the government to reduce the cost of getting students their solo license.  That includes ground school, flight time instruction, and the plane.  So, in August I took my first flight with him on an instructor-student basis, and we met every Sunday around 9:30 in the morning for about six weeks.  Over that course of time, I racked up 8.3 hours.  Then on Oct. 4, my 16th  birthday, we went to the airport for my solo day.  We first went up and took a few flights to refresh my memory.  Then we went up and did four touch and goes and a few traffic patterns.  

"When he felt like I was ready to solo, we made a full stop, he hopped out of the airplane, and said, 'Let me get my handheld radio and I'll let ya know.'  I was like, oookay," Rachael said with a laugh.  "So he radioed me to make sure we had contact, I taxied onto the runway and I took off."

"And mom and dad said 'Uhhh, there's nobody in that plane with her'" Stacey interjected humorously.

Rachael said one of the first things she noticed about flying solo was the difference in being up there all alone, as opposed to having an instructor by her side.

"Compared to flying with my instructor, it's hard to get a feel for how it's going to be; to have 187 pounds less in the co-pilot's seat.  You can't really practice that unless you fly solo," she said.  "You take off faster, you fly faster, you land faster, you're a little bit more buoyant because you don't have that extra weight pushing you down to where you're used to."

And, as luck would have it, on her solo flight, Rachael had a couple unpredictable hurdles to cross.  "Things that never happened when I was training," she pointed out with a smile.  "We had a person taxi out and take off in front of me, and then a flock of geese flew out in front of me.  I was like, 'Never practiced this one before!'"

But a few bumps along the way seem only to make the challenge more interesting for Rachael, who plans to continue pursuing her passion beyond high school.

"Having my solo license ... I'm advancing my aeronautical knowledge at Hawkins County Airport, where I volunteer my time and get to work on airplanes, learn about the systems, and learn how to fix them," she said.  "There's just so much knowledge at the airport there.  It's amazing."

Rachael's next step is to obtain the 40 to 60 hours needed for a pilot's license.  By volunteering her time at the airport, she said, she is allowed to exchange it for flight time.

"So, hopefully, that will help me to get my pilot's license a little faster," she added.  "Also, with my solo license, and with an instructor who is trying to further his business, we are trying to start a business in aerial photography.  Right now, we take pictures of whatever people want us to.  That includes businesses, farms, real estate.  It's a little bit to get me started because I don't actually have a job right now.  I'm doing that so I can put the extra money toward a car payment."

In the mean time, while Rachael continues to ground herself in aviation, so to speak, her parents are looking for scholarships so she can finish what she needs to get her pilot's license.

Already in pursuit of a university, Rachael said, "My overall goal in life is to get my bachelors degree in aeronautical engineering, and to be a fighter pilot in the Navy.  So, that's kind of where I want to track my life right now."

She is currently deciding on programs at Purdue, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical, Tuskegee, Spartan, Vanderbilt, and Colorado State universities, but so far, she said her top pick is Embry-Riddle because of its first-rate recognition in her field.

An active part of her school and the community, Rachael has been part of the the Civil Air Patrol for three years where she is a chief master sergeant.  She also recently joined the Police Explorer Program.  When she isn't volunteering her spare time at Hawkins County Airport, she is on the ROTC drill team, the academic team, the PT team, and serves as  color guard commander. She is also co-captain of the orienteering team, on the exhibition team, and an ROTC chief petty officer.  She also plays tennis for the Falcons.

In her career, she has received the Distinguished Cadet Award, as well as the United States Army Reserve Freshman Leadership Award.  In addition, the Military Officers Association of America awarded Rachael with the MOAA JROTC medal, and the Surface Navy Association awarded her The Stephen Decatur Award.

As a young woman going into a primarily male-dominated field, Rachael said she wants all women to keep their sights on achieving their life goals, particularly if their goal is to become a pilot.

"For women my age trying to be in the aviation field, I would have to say, 'Never give up, because it is mentally demanding, and don't let any guy take that dream away.  I've seen it happen to so many people, and also, keep going.  Try your hardest, and don't let anything come between you and your dreams.  Keep marching on."

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