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START intern launches career as Navy pilot

Erika Anderson always knew that her future was in aviation. Growing up the daughter of an F-18 Super Hornet squadron leader and granddaughter to a Vietnam War veteran who flew OV-10s, the chance to one day become a pilot and serve her country motivated her to join Navy ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) at age 18.

After four years of hard work, good grades and physical preparation, Anderson sets off after graduation for flight school at "The Cradle of Naval Aviation," Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida, to fulfill her dream of flying helicopters.

For Anderson, a START intern majoring in communications and public relations, her inspiration to be a pilot came from the strong influences around her. Her father spent his career as a naval aviator, moving the family every couple of years to bases across several states on both coasts. Her brother, who is currently in jet training himself, willingly shared the knowledge he knew with his inquisitive sister.

"When things are right, you just know," she said. "I believe intuition should guide you and mine tells me that I was meant to become a Navy pilot."

The challenges that come with being a pilot, especially in the military, are vast. Prior to flight school, aspiring pilots must go through thorough physical examinations where even the most trivial maladies like childhood asthma or an inability to hear at certain frequencies are a basis for disqualification. After two years of rigorous training, fully certified pilots must endure long flight hours on deployments for up to six months at a time. The difficult missions assigned to naval aviators demand not only superb technical skills but high levels of confidence, ambition, dedication and prudent aggressiveness.

The sacrifices and responsibilities that come with the job are realities Anderson understands.

"When you are responsible for the welfare of others and are given a multimillion dollar aircraft to use, you need to realize there is more at stake than your own life and interests. You forfeit what others consider a 'normal' lifestyle because you are now a representative of the United States Navy and America," she said.

The dangers of flight duty also do not faze her.

"I don't consider the dangers particularly frightening. If something ever did happen to me, I would go out doing something I absolutely loved, took pride in and was that was bigger than myself. That is the whole point of public service?it's not about honor or personal glory. It's about being part of something greater than the individual."

Even after receiving the best training available, Anderson will likely face additional challenges as she navigates her career in a field that is overwhelmingly male. She said that because only 8 percent of all Navy pilots are women, the stakes seem higher for female pilots to perform up to standards. However, Anderson said that the mentoring she has received from a senior female ROTC officer has helped her stay on path and further inspired her to work harder than her peers, regardless of gender.

"I am so excited to spend time around pilots who are serious about their profession," Anderson said.

"Navy pilots might also be known for being humorous, fun and a bit wild, but at the end of the day, we are all there to work and to serve our country."

Anderson said she is most looking forward to enjoying everything the Navy life has to offer in terms of flight opportunities, traveling and unforgettable life experiences. Leaning towards making the Navy a career choice, staying in for the long haul brings feelings of ease and satisfaction.

Asked where her career might be in ten years, she confidently responds, "I'd like to think that I'll be flying around in a helo, or maybe even in Command someday."