Stephanie 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, Johnson Space Center. Besides flying, her primary job is to oversee the scheduling and ongoing training of pilot astronauts at the Center, located in Clear Lake, Texas, thirty miles southeast of Houston.
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.”
Stephanie entered active duty with the Air Force at George AFB, California as a weather officer. A part-time job towing gliders on weekends kept her pretty busy. After two years in the Air Force, she was accepted into the third class of female pilot trainees at Williams AFB, Arizona. Completing her training there, she was assigned as a T-37 instructor at Reese AFB, Lubbock, Texas. Succeeding assignments took her to Guam where she flew the WC-130 “Typhoon Chaser.” While there, she upgraded to WC-130 instructor pilot, then back to Williams AFB where she flew T-38s as an instructor pilot.
When 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 Panama, Somalia and Bangladesh.
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-IIs, four of which are modified to be Shuttle Trainer Airplanes (STAs) a KC-135 Zero-Gravity plane; two long-wing WB57s; a Super Guppy, a Gulfstream G-1 administrative airplane, and two Boeing 747 shuttle Carrier Aircraft, (SCAs).
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-II 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 Trans-Atlantic 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.
Johnson Space Center staff pilots are military trained pilots with high-performance flying backgrounds as well as technical degrees. 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.
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 finely-tuned 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.”
One 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 San Antonio, “This is high priority stuff, above everything else except ‘Presidential Support.’ Come tomorrow,” it said, “and go to Somalia. You’ll be back in a week. You’re our last hope. If you can’t respond, we’ll have to cancel the mission.” Thus Stephanie embarked on a journey that was truly extraordinary-one that she would never forget.
The hastily assembled crew of four pilots, two of whom (including Stephanie) were trained for aerial refueling, departed from Savannah, Georgia in a C5 Galaxy. Their destination: Mogadishu, Somalia, Africa. Their purpose: to deliver cargo-just one tank-that’s all; however, this MI-AI tank weighed six and one-half tons, a whopping 130,000 pounds.
The heavily loaded aircraft was scheduled for four refueling operations between Savannah and Somalia. The refueling process is an intensely critical drill. A KC-135 (military version of the Boeing 707) meets up with its receiver at a predetermined location, altitude, heading and time for the purpose of transferring fuel from the tanker to the receiver.
Stephanie recalls one refueling in particular. “Two KC-135s met us near the coast of Spain. It was a dark night and the air was bumpy from thunderstorm buildups in the area. This, for me, was the AR from hell! I fell off the boom three times trying to follow his power changes and airspeed variations. I couldn’t hold a stabilized position behind the tanker. Finally, we were able to take 75,000 pounds from him. The second one went a lot smoother, so we were able to take on 80,000 pounds.
Upon landing at their destination, an interesting exercise in logistics occurred. “We did not shut down our engines in Mogadishu; we did an ‘engines-running’ offload of our cargo, the tank. We were out of there in thirty-five minutes. All the practicing our squadron did definitely paid off.”
They landed in Cairo twenty-four hours after leaving Savannah, Georgia. When Stephanie arrived back in the U.S. the statistics looked like this: four AR tracks, five tankers, and 18-1/2 hours non-stop, twenty-four hours on board the airplane.
Even with all the maneuvering, orchestration and risks involved- the mission was accomplished. There were helicopter crews being held in captivity in Mogadishu. The timely delivery of the MI tank accelerated their release, minimizing any torture to which they might have been subjected. Stephanie says, “I’m glad I was a part of this effort.” In January 1994, each of the crew and others who participated were awarded the Air Medal.
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 5-year-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.