She Likes Her Head in the Clouds
August 31, 2016
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  • Samantha Brinker, 17, feels very comfortable in the air, maybe even more so than on the ground.

    “I’ve always loved the idea of aviation and the fact that I don’t have to stay on the ground,” said Brinker, who is a senior at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School and now a licensed pilot.

    The Washington teen earned her pilot’s license Aug. 6 after two years of training. She was only 15 when she began flying lessons and actually made her first solo flight (completing a takeoff and landing by herself) before she earned a license to drive a car.

    The daughter of Jeff Brinker and Tricia Brinker, Washington, Samantha is the first pilot in her family, but her love of aviation is something she shares with her father.

    He has long been an aviation buff, and her family has traveled quite a bit on planes from the time she was very young. She has been as far north as Canada, British Columbia, and Alaska, and as far south as Belize.

    “I’ve always loved travel, and I’ve always loved going to the airport more than I’ve loved going to a destination,” said Brinker. “I’ve been fascinated by airports anywhere I’ve flown.”

    Chose Flying Lessons Over Vacations

    Brinker said her father knows all about airplanes.

    “Ask him about any type of airplane, and he can tell you what it is, where it’s from, who makes it,” she said. “I think a part of him wanted to learn to fly, but he never did.”

    Maybe that’s why he suggested she take lessons.

    “We were sitting in my dad’s living room, and he said, ‘We can either go on vacation for two years together, or you can get a pilot’s license,’ and I said, ‘Pilot’s license, obviously,’ ” Brinker recalled.

    They contacted Air Associates, which has a flight school at Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield, and signed up Brinker for a “discovery flight,” which is a half-hour or so flight where the instructor hands over the controls a bit up in the air to see how the potential student handles the situation.

    “I fell in love with it,” Brinker remarked.

    She began taking lessons twice a week on a Cessna 162 Skycatcher. Each lesson was about two hours, although some were as long as four hours. Her lessons were after school and on the weekends.

    “Usually I flew every Tuesday and Saturday — Tuesdays from 4 to 6 or 6:30 p.m. and Saturdays, I liked to fly in the mornings because it’s calm and it’s clear and you can see a lot, and it’s pretty to fly in the mornings. So I’d fly from 7 a.m. until 9 or 9:30 a.m.,” said Brinker.

    Juggling flying lessons with being a high school student — one who also runs varsity cross country, is a Student Council officer, member of National Honor Society and the leader of two big retreats at SFBRHS — was a challenge, Brinker admits, but she welcomed it.

    “When you love something, you find a way to make time for it,” she said. “If you want to do it, you’ll find a way.”

    Brinker noticed she was always the youngest student, by far, taking lessons at Air Associates. The next students closest to her age were in their mid-20s, she said, adding that she was often the only woman taking lessons at the flight school.

    Only Felt Scared Twice

    Landing is by far the hardest part of flying, said Brinker.

    “Every airplane flies differently and every day is different, because of atmospheric pressure and temperature and wind conditions,” she explained. “So any day you fly is not like the last time you learned.

    “You are learning the whole idea of it, but you’re also learning how to adjust every day to the new conditions, and that was most definitely the hardest,” she said.

    Just like for students taking driver’s ed classes, a flight instructor has controls on his or her side of the airplane and can assume control of the plane at any point, said Brinker.

    In her two years of flight lessons, Brinker felt in danger only twice — once when a helicopter that hadn’t contacted air traffic control flew into her air space and almost caused a collision, and a second time when the instructor wanted to teach her about night flying.

    “The instructor made me disoriented on purpose. We flew into a cloud, and he turned lights on, so they reflect and the light bounces around the cabin,” said Brinker. “My instructor knew how to handle it, but I didn’t.”

    To earn a pilot’s license, there are both written tests and hands-on tests. The final test to become a private pilot includes a two-hour written test, a four-hour oral test and a two-hour flying test, said Brinker.

    Likes to Fly Along the River

    Brinker’s private pilot’s license certifies her to fly a plane that is under 200 horsepower and single engine with fixed landing gear. That means she is authorized to fly any airplane in that range, although personally, she wouldn’t feel comfortable flying an airplane without first getting checked out on it with an instructor.

    “It’s really stupid to get in an airplane that you’ve never flown and think that you can fly it,” she remarked.

    Brinker rents the airplane she flies from Air Associates. She isn’t interested in owning her own airplane, because they are a lot of work to maintain.

    “You have to keep them up-to-date with records and all that stuff. There is a lot of paperwork and headache involved in keeping a plane and insuring it,” she said.

    “You rent the whole plane. You call it wet, which means it has fuel and stuff,” said Brinker. “It’s about $130 an hour, which is a lot, but being young, you can apply for scholarships and stuff. There are a lot of aviation scholarships.”

    To maintain her pilot’s license, Brinker is required to complete three takeoffs and landings every three months, but she feels that to stay proficient, she needs to fly more often, so she goes flying at least every two weeks.

    “I practice the maneuvers I’ve learned and pattern work, takeoffs and landings over and over and over again,” she commented.

    She sometimes flies to a destination, like her aunt’s house in Farmington or to Lambert’s Restaurant in Sikeston.

    “They have their own runway, and they have a van that will bring you to the restaurant, so that place is fun to fly into,” said Brinker.

    The furthest Brinker has flown is a three-point cross country, or 150 nautical miles, from Spirit airport to Rolla then up to Mexico and back to Spirit.

    “It was actually a perfect equilateral triangle, which was really fun — 60, 60 and 60,” Brinker remarked.

    Some of her favorite places to fly to are Columbia and Jefferson City because the scenery along the Missouri river is so pretty. Although flying to those close destinations isn’t necessarily a lot faster.

    “Winds make a huge difference in flight time. It could take me around 30 minutes to get to Columbia from Spirit, but then an hour and 10 minutes to get back,” said Brinker.

    “I usually cruise at about 100 knots, nautical miles, an hour. Which is 117 actual miles an hour, which is really comfortable, but you don’t feel like you’re going that fast when you’re flying,” she added.

    “One of the most fun things I’ve ever done is I found a really, really strong headwind, like 55 knots, so I slowed down the airplane and got it to stand still in the air. The wind was blowing over the wings, and I had thrust to go forward, but I didn’t move forward because of the wind. I was literally just hovering there,” said Brinker.

    She doesn’t fly above 10,000 feet. Her plane’s service ceiling is 14,500 feet, but she would need oxygen to go that high.

    “And I have to get high altitude training above certain altitudes, and I don’t have that,” said Brinker.

    Anyone can fly with Brinker. There are no restrictions on her pilot’s license, as there are with new car drivers about how many passengers they can have.

    “I’m treated as an adult pilot. There is no difference between an adult pilot and a teenage pilot,” said Brinker.

    So far, she has only taken her mom up as a passenger, although her friends have asked when they can come too.

    “I hope to take my friends, if their parents agree,” said Brinker.

    She flies by herself to fly regularly, and believes that’s a good practice for staying sharp and focused.

    Dreams of Flying for the Air Force

    Some of the teachers at SFBRHS are aware that Brinker has her pilot’s license, but it isn’t the kind of thing she goes around telling people.

    She is taking physics this year, although after passing ground school to earn her pilot’s license, there are parts of the class that will be like a refresher course for her.

    Brinker said her dream for after high school is to fly for the U.S. Air Force, maybe go to the Air Force Academy. Her brother is there now.

    “He’s a physics major,” she said. “He’s more behind the scenes. He’ll design the airplanes, and I’ll fly them.”

    Once her vision starts to give out — “Both of my parents have terrible vision, so I can’t count on it lasting,” she said — she plans to keep flying personally since the standards are a lot less strict than in the military.

    For a career, at that point, she envisions herself studying airspace law.

    “I just want to have fun with it,” said Brinker. “I love flying so much. I’m a firm believer in that if I can have fun with it, I’ll never work a day in my life, because it won’t feel like work to me.”