This 3 part story journals FMA student member Autumn Pepper Rhodes’ quest of flight.

Autumn Rhodes Pepper

When I was younger, I was a girly-girl. I liked playing with My Little Pony and dressing up like the Disney Princesses. Around the age of 8, these interests slowly faded. The gifted program introduced more interesting topics like engineering and science, and it was great exploring these new avenues. Around this time, I developed an interest in owls. I thought they were so majestic, and I envied their ability to fly. That concept of flight was so interesting to me. I started collecting owl pictures, figurines, bags, and shirts – all with different types of owls. It was quite the obsession. I wanted to be able to fly just like the creatures I adored so much. The only way to soar like an owl was to learn to fly and decided I wanted to become a pilot. The fact I had never been in any type of plane was not a deterrent. I was determined to one day be a pilot.

My mom had always wanted to go to Space Camp when she was younger, but her parents said no. She happened to be on their website one day and noticed a program called Aviation Challenge. Aviation Challenge is a branch of Space Camp in which you get to study flight and experience an exciting week full of aviation and militaristic-style activities. All safe and kid appropriate, of course. Learning about flight and simulators and taking my first trip to Alabama sounded awesome. It was an expensive week though, plus the travel and out of our price range. On the Aviation Challenge website, we saw a link for scholarship opportunities. I applied for the leadership scholarship and had to create a patch, write an essay and complete a science experiment. It was fun and challenging. A few months later, to my happy surprise, I was selected to receive a leadership scholarship to the Aviation Challenge. That summer I was off to Huntsville, Alabama, for one of the most memorable weeks of my life.

There were only two girls our team. I was the only one on my team who knew how to make an emergency shelter in the wild, fold hospital corners for our rack in the barracks, and won the “build a glider” competition. My call sign was Salsa and after you spend a little time with me, you would probably figure out why. My counselors were so inclusive and made sure that everyone felt comfortable. At the end of the week, Team Lightning won the Admiral’s Cup for Mach I. To make the week even more memorable, I also won the coveted Right Stu award for Mach I. I left Huntsville wanting to fly a real fighter jet.

Learning to fly became my new focus. Yes, I was only ten years old. My friends thought I was crazy. Three months after returning from Aviation Challenge, we found a local EAA chapter. My mom contacted their Young Eagle Coordinator to arrange a visit and flight. In October of 2015, I headed to Page Field for my first Young Eagles flight. I was given a short class on the basics of aviation, which I found fascinating, and then did a walk around of a small aircraft. When my mom realized that Experimental (the E in EAA) meant self-built, I was worried she would not let me go up. But she did. Mr. Rich was my pilot and my very first flight was in his RV-8. From the moment I hopped into the cockpit until the moment we touched back down, I knew I had found my passion. It was the most exhilarating feeling, better than Space Mountain at Disney!! We flew over my neighborhood, along the river, and went cloud dancing. I was even able to handle the controls. I was so happy. The EAA pilots were all so nice and all they saw that day was an excited little girl. They didn’t know how long I would be sticking around.

A few weeks later, we took a Girl Scout camping trip to Lakeland to participate in Aviation Discovery Weekend on the Sun-n-Fun campus. They were doing flights there as well and I had my second flight in three weeks!! I was hooked! This was my future.

I used my early birthday money and the next month, I came back and paid the local chapter dues and became a member of EAA Chapter 66. From that point forward, I was like a little puppy. I would follow our pilots around when they were done flying the new Young Eagles hoping for a flight. I would do any chore they asked if it meant a flight. I loved flying with Lt. Tom and probably bugged him the most during my first year. He was a former Top Gun instructor. He would do Navy take-offs and take me cloud dancing. I loved being able to handle the controls. I was interested in the Air Force Academy and Lt. Tom would always tell me to apply to the Naval Academy instead. I started playing simulator games at home and started reading about aviation. Within a few months, I was helping with Young Eagle tasks at our monthly pancake breakfasts and attending build night. I was only 11 years old, but I was making a plan for my future.

Read Volume 1.2 here.