There’re so many different routes into a career in aviation and we at AeroTime love hearing them all. We are delighted to be working with the United Aviate Academy in Goodyear, Arizona to share the stories of some of their cadets for International Pilot’s Day.
We caught up with Natalie Villalpando, 27, who started at the Academy as part of the first class in December 2021.
Natalie is a great example of how United is seeking to diversify the pilot pipeline. Natalie, whose family originally come from Mexico, studied petroleum engineering and secured a scholarship from the Latino Pilots Association, helping to fund her pilot training at the United Aviate Academy.
Natalie says she only decided to become a pilot less than a year ago. It’s a common theme in studies that women often don’t realize being a pilot is a career choice open to women, simply because there are so few female pilots, let alone pilots of color.
“Throughout my whole life. I knew I wanted to travel,” Natalie explains. “But growing up, I didn’t really see any pilots who looked like me. And I saw very few women, so it didn’t really register as a possibility in my head.”
When Natalie heard United was starting its own pilot training program, she leapt at the chance, especially thanks to the funding that has been put in place. “If you told me a year ago that this was going to be my life now, I would not have believed you!”
The United Aviate Academy has partnered with JP Morgan to provide $2.4 million in scholarships, and is working with associations such as the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Sisters of the Skies, the Latino Pilots Association, and the Professional Asian Pilots Association to identify candidates for scholarships and grants.
“It’s a bit of a stereotype that learning to be a pilot, let alone a commercial pilot, is a very expensive endeavor,” Natalie says. “So even pursuing it as a hobby, I didn’t really register as being a possibility for me. And now it’s going from that to being my future career. And I’m absolutely ecstatic.”
The first class at the United Aviate Academy is made up of 80% women or people of color. Overall, United aims to use the Academy to train about 5,000 new pilots at the school by 2030, with at least half women or people of color.
Natalie says the atmosphere at the school has been very welcoming, with everyone supporting each other.
“As far as inclusivity goes, the best thing is that we were all made to feel as equals. Most of us came with zero training hours so we could all bond over that and this brand new experience that we are all deep diving into. We knew this was a big change for all of us from different walks of life,” she explains.
Natalie hopes to serve as a role model herself. “Eventually down the line, I hope to be part of a new class of pilots that basically provide new role models that many people didn’t have growing up, so that they can have that real world example to use as a step to follow.”
Credit: United Aviate
Natalie’s love for aviation started as a child, inspired by her father, who worked for Continental and United.
“As we were waiting to board a flight, he would bring me over to the window and show me all the different planes and tell me where they were coming in from, what models they were, how many people they could fit on them,” Natalie tells AeroTime. “I remember even as a young girl thinking how amazing it was that flight could bring people from all around the world to one place, and then take them wherever they want to go.”
The sheer feeling of being in the air and controlling an aircraft is the main driver for Natalie in her training. “Just that skill alone, being able to soar through the sky and go from one place to another in less than a day or only a few hours is really a motivator for me.
Natalie’s favorite part of the training so far has been the flying, of course!
“The area we train in is gorgeous. Part of our regular procedure for returning to our airport after we train is that we fly directly next to mountains on our way back and it’s a sight I never get bored of.”
Like other pilots, Natalie won’t forget her first solo. “It wasn’t until I finally landed, that it fully hit me: ‘Oh, my goodness, I just flew a plane by myself’. That one feeling of knowing that you did it on your own, that your skills are up to that level without having your CFI have to guide you through every single step. That was definitely a moment of pride that I’m never going to forget,” she recalls.
Training obviously has its challenges too. Natalie says it’s involved a shift in mentality, that you have to keep pushing yourself.
“It’s not just something you can study or memorize. It is a willingness to get back in the fray and go up again and again, knowing mistakes you might have made but knowing that you do have to overcome them or not only your safety but eventually for the safety of every soul on board besides yourself.”
Natalie says the most useful piece of advice was from her father, who told her that safety is paramount. “He told me that whenever I do, whenever I go up, I definitely need to be focused on being safe and coming back home at the end of the day, and that is definitely something that I think about every time I get in the captain’s seat.”
For anyone considering getting into pilot training themselves, especially if you’re coming from a different background, Natalie has some words of advice.
“If I could give any piece of advice to them right now, it would be if it crosses your mind, then pursue it. Regardless of what other people say around you, or a lack of examples you may have around you, you could be the very first one that you know of. So don’t let your surroundings limit you.”