Flight Program: Star-Struck at Aviation Education Expo
by George Beals
I was in from the moment I heard the words “All day event.” I’m used to public school, where we don’t have to come on national holidays (R-MA holds classes on many of the federal holidays such as Columbus Day and President's Day), and this Projet Aviation Career Expo seemed to be the perfect way to weasel out of a Friday’s worth of classes. I didn’t sign up just to miss school, if that’s what you’re thinking. I had other motivations, like the free lunch that would be provided. Seriously, a day away from school and a non-Sysco lunch that I don’t have to pay for? Who in their right mind would consider saying no?
The airport where the expo would be held was about an hour’s drive away, and when we pulled up, I wasn’t really that excited; I was just happy to be out of school for the day. The main things on my mind were the free lunch and the inevitable make-up work I would have to grapple with on the weekend. We all filed in respectfully to the crowded hangar where the expo was being held. The main floor was occupied by a couple of small airplanes and several hundred chairs facing the stage. Projector screens lined one of the walls. A ring of vendors' tables lined the other three walls, among them military recruiters, airline companies, flight schools who owned the planes that were on display, federal agencies, insurance companies, and even a catering business. By the time we walked in, the introduction speech had already started, so most everybody stood quietly behind the seats so as not to disturb the speaker. As it happened, being a few minutes late was one of the greatest things that happened that day.
As I was standing in the back of the crowd, I began to just look around at the other people who had opted to stand. I saw a few casually dressed adults, and some of the representatives came out from behind their vending tables. But one woman in an olive green flight suit caught my attention. I had to do a quick double take, to make sure my eyes weren’t pulling pranks on me, but it didn’t take long to confirm that I was looking at the one and only Lt Cmdr Meagan Flannigan. What’s that? You don’t know who that is? Allow me to jog your memory.
Lt Commander Meagan Flannigan graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1998 and went on to fly the F-14D Tomcat, the Navy’s premier fighter jet. Oh, you’ve heard of that plane before? That’s not surprising. Anyone who saw the 1986 iconic action movie “Top Gun” will be intimately familiar with the jet. So why is Meagan Flannigan so famous? She wasn’t in the movie, kicking tires and lighting fires alongside Maverick, Goose, and Iceman. There was still a movie about her though, just not a Hollywood action movie with a tacky romance subplot and cheap special effects. Rather, Meagan Flannigan starred in a documentary, as in an unscripted, not staged, real-life-captured-on-film movie about becoming a fighter pilot in the Navy. To top it all off, when she set her heart on being a fighter pilot, women weren’t allowed to participate in any form of fighting, much less one as coveted as aerial combat. In my humble personal opinion, Tom Cruise is five-foot-two poser compared Meagan Flannigan. Have a look at this and then tell me you don’t recognize her:
As far as I’m concerned, that beats the pants off of anything I’ve seen Val Kilmer pull off. Not only did she actually fly real combat missions in the venerable Tomcat, she was the first, and so far the only woman to do so.
So here I am, essentially skipping school for a free lunch, and then I spot her not ten feet away from me. I’ll admit I was a bit star-struck. Some people get star-struck when they see Peyton Manning or Angelina Jolie, but not me. Call me a nerd, or geek, or whatever else you care to come up with, but Meagan Flannigan is the real deal. She delivered a speech, detailing her life’s journey from being a little girl who dreamt of flying the Tomcat after seeing Top Gun (to the film’s credit, it did inspire Meagan to be a pilot) to actually going through the training and being selected to do it for real. The majority of my companions hung out near the back again because lunch was being served after she was done, but free food had been suddenly knocked down a few places on my priority list. After she gave her presentation, I was determined to go up and meet her. There was a bit of a wait, all the while I couldn’t help but notice the food line wasn’t getting any shorter, but I had a new mission. When I did finally get to talk to her, I found myself to be a bit less eloquent than normal. After all, I was standing right next to someone I had idolized after only hearing about her, but she was polite and patient with me. She answered my questions, listened to what I had to say, and posed for a quick photo, and that was that. I’m sure it wasn’t the only encounter of that kind she’d had, and she likely wouldn’t be able to remember my name among all the others she’d heard that day, but those few minutes meant the world to a kid who thought she was essentially awesomeness personified.
After meeting Meagan Flannigan, a couple of things changed. Now, I no longer have any doubt in my mind that I will one day be a fighter pilot. I used to be afraid of saying something so absolute regarding my career goals because of the odds, and I didn’t want to be bitterly disappointed if all my hopes and dreams fell flat. But if a little thing like probability didn’t stop Meagan Flannigan, then it sure won’t stop me.