Aviation dreams: Selma Keochakian takes flight

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    Selma Keochakian has worked tirelessly on all the steps toward her private pilot's license.
  • 420C974A-F63C-4526-B866-A246775DB63A
    Selma Keochakian has worked tirelessly on all the steps toward her private pilot's license.

Seventeen-year-old senior Selma Keochakian is doing something most seniors have not: getting her “wings.” Over the last two years, she has taken flight lessons, studied, taken exams, and is now just moments away from the arduous but thrilling process of earning her private pilot license. Not only that, but Keochakian is currently also an employee at Northampton Airport as a flight dispatcher. I spoke to her about the process of becoming a pilot, including what she loves about and has learned from this epic journey.

DL: How old were you and what was it like when you began the pursuit of flight? 

SK: I was 15 years old when I began taking flying lessons at the Northampton Airport. The first step was to take my introductory flight, which consists of 30 minutes on the ground for a pre-flight of the airplane, and 30 minutes in the air with one of the flight instructors. The purpose of this flight is to determine whether flying is something that you want to pursue. After my introductory flight, I knew that this was for me and I wanted to officially begin flight lessons. Generally, the first license that people work towards is the private pilot license. Earning your private pilot license is what most consider to be the ‘base’ license or your first ‘goal’ as a pilot. It allows you to fly an airplane day and night in visual flight conditions and take up passengers. This is the license that I have been working towards throughout my training. 

DL: How long does it take to fly on your own?

SK: In February of 2022, my junior year, I completed my first solo flight. It was no doubt one of the best, if not the best, days of my life. Aside from earning the actual license, the first solo flight is the biggest milestone in the flight training process. Since that flight, I have been a solo-endorsed student pilot allowing me to fly alone. However, earning my private pilot’s license will allow me to carry passengers. In order to earn your private pilot license, there are some requirements that must be fulfilled. 

DL: How often do you go to the airport? 

SK: On average I would say I am at the airport around 3-4 days a week.

DL: What are they?

SK: It takes a minimum of 40 total hours of flight time, 3 hours of night flying (including 10-night landings and 1-night “cross country” flight), 3 hours of simulated instrument training, and 10 hours solo flying (including 5 hours of solo “cross country” time and 3 landings at an airport with a control tower). I also have to pass the written exam with at least a 70% and pass the check-ride (the final exam which includes a 2-3 hour oral exam with a Designated Pilot Examiner and a 1-2 hour practical in-flight exam with that same Designated Pilot Examiner). The oral and practical exams occur on the same day right after one another. By the way,  a “cross country” flight is NOT what it sounds like! It is not a flight across the country. Landing at an airport more than 50 nautical miles from the original point of departure qualifies as a daytime “cross-country flight.” 

DL: What is the cost of this whole process?

SK: It totally depends on how many hours it takes you to earn your license. It is completely different for everyone. On average it costs around $10,000. To rent an airplane for an hour costs about $200 plus a $60 instructor fee. So if you multiply $260 by the number of hours you fly, it adds up quickly.  I applied for a Mary Shea Wright Flight Memorial Scholarship that covers the cost of all the flight time, instructor time, a navigation subscription, an online ground school, and all the books needed to earn my private pilot license. However, you must get your license a year from when you receive the scholarship.

DL: Tell me more about how you learned about this scholarship. What helped you gain access to flying lessons? 

SK: I was flying on and off for about a year when I heard of the scholarship opportunity. It is offered at Northampton Airport for girls of at least 16 years of age to encourage women to join the field of aviation. Originally, this scholarship was only an option for girls at Northampton High School and the Smith Vocational School in Northampton. However, last year it opened up beyond those schools and I jumped on this opportunity immediately. I went through the application and interview process and became the 2022 recipient. This allowed me to fly whenever I could.

DL: When will you get your private pilot’s license? 

SK: I have completed all of the above requirements aside from my check-ride which is scheduled to be next month. After I pass my check-ride, I will be a licensed private pilot! 

DL: What inspired you to learn to fly? 

SK: Growing up, I have had a lot of experience traveling back and forth to and from Germany where most of my family lives. As much as I love seeing everyone again after a year of only hearing their voices over the phone, my favorite part of traveling has always been the flight. I’ve known from an incredibly young age that I wanted to spend my future around planes, and I dreamed of becoming a flight attendant. Thinking back on it now, I realize that being a pilot never occurred as an option to me. I mean every flight I had been on, the people serving me food were women and the voice preparing us for take-off belonged to a man. I grew up in this stereotype without ever realizing that it was one. Until the day my dad asked me, “Why not a pilot?” and I quite honestly didn’t have an answer for him. The question excited me to such an extent however that after weeks of research, I had an introductory flight scheduled shortly after, and it wouldn’t be a lie to say that it was the best decision of my life.

DL: What do you like about flying?

SK: For starters, I love it because it is different. I also appreciate the knowledge that I have acquired throughout this process, not only about the cockpit and what each lever and button, and instrument can do, but about aircraft systems, aircraft performance, airspace, aerodynamics, aeromedical factors, weather, flight planning, and communication. I love the initial adrenaline rush of going up in the air. Flying a small plane is like being on a roller coaster without tracks. At the same time, in order to keep each other safe and alive, my plane and I must trust each other and trust that we know what we are doing. The sense of ease I had when I first maneuvered myself in the air is one that I will never forget. Flying has given me so much more confidence. Looking back on the beginning days of my training with just over two years of experience now, I see everything I have accomplished and everything that I now know I can accomplish in the future. The fact that I have learned how to fly a plane makes me feel like I am ready to go up against the world. My whole life changed just from one flight. I absolutely love it up there.

DL: Do you want to do this for pleasure or for a career? Do you have any flight goals?

SK: I have my eyes set on the airlines. One step in that process is becoming a certified flight instructor which people usually become to get the hours needed to move on to the airlines. However, I would love to become a flight instructor whether that be as a stepping stone or as a final result. Regardless, I see my future involving aviation one way or another.

DL: What are some of the best feelings about flying? 

SK: Aside from the incredible community of aviators and the many inspirational people and friends I have met through this process, I would say one of the best feelings in aviation is the sense of accomplishment. I remember a solo cross-country flight I completed this past summer that consisted of landing in Lebanon, New Hampshire, a landing in Turners Falls, and then a landing back in Northampton. The flight took around 2 hours and it was a bumpy day up there so I was being tossed around a little. The airport in Lebanon had a control tower that had me land using a runway I had no familiarity with, which was a challenge in itself. However, it worked out fine and after landing there I proceeded on toward Turners Falls. 

After landing and taking off at Turners I was on the last leg of the flight back to Northampton Airport. I remember switching over to Northampton’s radio frequency again and hearing all the familiar voices while flying over familiar landmarks. When I was about four miles out from the airport, I heard over the radio that the winds had changed, meaning that the runway in use had changed as well. This altered my plans and I had to adjust to that as well. So when my wheels made contact with the runway, the sense of accomplishment that rushed over me was indescribable. It was a truly incredible feeling and it made me realize how capable I am.

DL: Who else has flown with you? Where do you go?

SK: I’ve gone on many incredible flights with my instructor. Some of my favorites include Niagara Falls, Martha’s Vineyard, Block Island, Nantucket Island, and New York City. My best friend Eleanor came on the Martha’s Vineyard flight with us. My mom came on the Block Island flight. My mom and sister came on the Nantucket flight. 

DL: What do you want others to know about flying?

SK: If you think flying might be something for you, don’t let yourself be the thing that stands in your way.