Phyllis R. Moses
Wells fits into her gigantic role quite nicely. She is a NASA pilot and is the
training officer for NASA's Aircraft Operations, in charge of the astronaut's
flying training at NASA,
A woman of remarkable energy and purpose, Stephanie Wells only wants to do her job, to live up to her own expectations, and to fulfill her dreams.
Stephanie says, "I became interested in aviation in high school, and soloed through the Maryland Wing Civil Air Patrol cadet program. Who were my heroines? I admired Jacqueline Cochran and Amelia Earhart because they weren't just characters in books, they were real people who accomplished things no one else had ever done. They were models of what success could be like, if one sticks to the goal."
Her rise in the field of aviation is due to persistence and hard work. She earned her private pilot's license in college on top of a full class load and a 20-hour a week job. As Stephanie says, "Although my parents helped financially, it was still necessary for me to work part-time jobs all through college. Working in the dormitory helped to pay for room and board; several small jobs yielded extra cash. There always seemed to be enough to eke out a little flying time. Every penny was counted all the way through college, and at the end of spring I would finish the last final, and go home with $10 in my pocket, which was all I had in the world."
Summers were spent working full time. Stephanie would earn about $3,000, go back to college in the fall and do the same thing all over again. Her membership in the CAP and ROTC resulted in small scholarships that helped in a big way.
"It's a funny thing," she said, "I never got discouraged. Not only was it fun, but it taught me to make wise choices-like how I earned and spent my money."
Stephanie finished college in 1975, with a degree in meteorology and a commission as a second lieutenant in the Air Force through the ROTC program. However, the single most important lesson she learned was, as she puts it, "how to manage my life so I could make things happen to move my dreams along."
entered active duty with the Air Force at George AFB,
Stephanie left the active Air Force in 1985, she joined the reserves at Kelly
AFB. Here she flew the C5 Galaxy as an aerial refueling and instructor pilot.
Her unit was called up for Desert Storm in August, 1980. She also flew missions
to many worldwide locations, including
An extraordinary career opportunity opened up for Stephanie when she joined NASA in 1986 as a staff pilot. NASA has quite a fleet of aircraft: thirty T -38s, five Gulfstream G-11s, four of which are modified to be Shuttle Trainer Airplanes (STAB) a KC-135 Zero-Gravity plane; two long-wing WB57s; a Super Guppy, a Gulfstream G-1 adminis-trative airplane, and two Boeing 747 shuttle Carrier Aircraft, (SCAB).
The T-38s primarily support the Astronaut Space Flight Readiness training. The pilot astronauts are checked out in the T-38s as pilots-in-command, and fly it to maintain their flying skills, while mission specialists are checked out in the back seat to learn about aviation in general. This includes avionics, navigation, communication, aircrew coordination learning what it takes to operate in a dynamic high performance environment.
As Stephanie explains, "The STAs are also for astronaut training. Highly modified business jets, they're designed to model the Shuttle during the descent and landing phase. Each pilot astronaut practices many hundreds of shuttle approaches, (called "dives" since they are so steep) in the STA before they ever go into space. It's like an airborne simulator. The fifth G-11 is used as a mission support airplane, primarily flying NASA managers and officials to mission-related business around the country and around the world."
The KC-135 flies the zero-gravity profile. On a typical flight, it flies forty "parabolas," which create about twenty-five seconds of microgravity on each maneuver. The zero gravity created is used by researchers from every imaginable field from combustion to two-phase flow to medical research to crystal growth-anything that could be applied to knowledge about low gravity environment. It's used to test just about every piece of hardware through its stages of development before it goes into space. It's also used for astronaut training, both for Zero-G training as well as heavy aircraft training, since many of the pilot astronauts have never flown heavy aircraft.
In other roles, the KC-135 is used as a pathfinder which flies ahead of the shuttle mated to the SCA to check weather conditions. It's also used as a TransAtlantic Landing support aircraft, as an emergency Mission Control Aircraft, and as an airborne platform for checking the microwave landing system part of the Shuttle Approach guidance.
Their official title is "Aerospace Engineer and Pilot" All twenty of the instructor-pilots train the astronauts, as well as giving them their annual check rides.
"While most of my T-38 flying is instructing astronauts, there are always maintenance check flights, logistic flights, and some test flights. I never get tired of flying the T-38, it's like driving the sleekest sport car you can imagine," Stephanie explained.
"Flying the zero-G parabolas are fun. It's a unique kind of flying, and takes a lot of practice, to say nothing of the importance of having a really finelytuned crew to make it all happen." Stephanie continues, "It's exciting to be part of the initial research and training for the events that happen on the shuttle or in the space station."
night in 1993 when Stephanie returned home from the office, the word
"unexpected," acquired a whole new meaning. There was an urgent
recorded message from the chief pilot of her reserve unit in
hastily assembled crew of four pilots, two of whom (including Stephanie) were
trained for aerial refueling, departed from
heavily loaded aircraft was scheduled for four refueling operations between
recalls one refueling in particular. "Two KC135s met us near the coast of
landing at their destination, an interesting exercise in logistics occurred.
"We did not shut down our engines in
with all the maneuvering, orchestration and risks involved-the mission was
accomplished. There were helicopter crews being held in captivity in
In 1996, Stephanie retired from the reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel, with twenty-one years military time, and 10,000 total hours logged during her career.
At the age of 46, mother of a 5year-old son, Kristopher, Stephanie has successfully combined her career with motherhood. "It's a balancing act," she says, " a matter of priorities. It's good that I don't travel as much any more, and can spend more time with my family."
As she says, "I love what I do, I'm right where I want to be in my life. The career path I've chosen has been rigorous at times, but there have been lots of encouragers along the way."
"Now that I'm older, I want to give something back. I have a lifetime of experience, many hours in the air; I've traveled all over the world, and served my country faithfully and gladly. Mentoring is especially important to me; every chance I get, I speak to young people about goal setting and realizing their dreams. They should be encouraged to believe that all things are possible."
She smiles as she reflects back on her life, "I always took advantage of any training that came my way. My personal philosophy is that luck is nothing more than preparedness meeting opportunity."
Stephanie is living out those early dreams-dreams of flying military aircraft, of securing her place in the progress of aviation, and lighting the path of other young hopefuls.
Stephanie works in a world of the most sophisticated technology available to space exploration. She trains astronauts who fly to the outer reaches of the universe as well as those who've walked on the moon. Then there are those who aspire to land on Mars and other remote planets. But her vision reaches beyond the limitations of space. Simply put, the aviation industry still belongs to those who love to fly, who remember what they did to achieve it, and reach back to help someone else along the way.
Such is the stuff dreams are made of.
Moses is a pilot and aviation writer residing in