The sky’s the limit for 17-year-old pilot

CARLSBAD — For most girls turning Sweet 16, the perfect present might include a gift card for a shopping spree, spa day or beauty makeover.
For Carlsbad resident Waverly Giannotti, it was a certificate for five lessons at McClellan-Palomar Airport’s Grey Eagle Flight Academy.
“Ever since then I’ve been flying,” she said. “I was just hooked immediately. It’s been fun and a blessing.”
Giannotti has been a “space junkie,” according to her mother, ever since she was about 12. In middle school, she wanted to be an astronaut.
But those plans changed during her freshman year of high school after a family friend took her up in a single-engine Cessna 172.
“We weren’t even 50 feet off the runway and I knew this is what I wanted to do,” Giannotti said. “I remember texting my mom when we landed telling her this is something I really want to do.”
At the time she was 15 and old enough to begin lessons. But her parents, Ron and Gayle, decided to let the desire play out.
“We wanted to make sure this wasn’t some new thing she wanted to do that would make her different from everybody else,” said Gayle Giannotti, a former flight attendant who was just shy of earning her pilot license as a teenager.
“But she was fascinated and wanted to learn more,” she said. “I think she almost got worn out bugging us about it.”
After receiving the first five lessons from her parents, Giannotti spent the next 18 months juggling school, extracurricular activities and college-test practice sessions so she could log the 70 hours required for a license.
She also worked two part-time jobs to cover the $15,000 price tag. In exchange for some flight time, Giannotti washed planes, cleaned offices and performed other odd jobs at Grey Eagle. She also took up modeling and has appeared in local publications such as San Diego Magazine and last winter’s Sports Authority catalog.
“I ended up flying two to three times a week,” she said. “It was crazy but I managed to prioritize and get organized.”
This past June 28, Giannotti became a licensed private pilot. She tries to get flight time at least once a week.
While she believes it’s natural to feel somewhat afraid while flying, Giannotti said her experiences have taught her to be alert and “situationally aware” to avoid panicking.
“When you’re flying, you never really know what’s going to happen,” she said. “The control tower could tell you to do something different or something you’re not used to.”
Her most anxious moment so far was during her first solo “cross-country” flight, a 150-mile round trip from Palomar to Thermal Airport near Palm Springs.
“When I was flying over the desert I lost communications with the tower, and I couldn’t find the airport either,” she said. “I was a little bit afraid but I put myself in an orbit to make sure I didn’t get lost. I called an emergency facility and asked them for vectors to the airport, and I was able to work through that situation.
“It turned from being a really scary situation to learning a lot of skills and a lot of things about myself,” she said. “It’s really important to confess that you’re vulnerable, that you’re lost and not think that you know everything.”
In addition to school, work and flying, Giannotti is affiliated with Girls with Wings, a nonprofit, Internet-based organization that encourages young women to pursue careers in aviation.
“I really want to use my license as a way to encourage kids to go after their dreams,” she said. “They can pursue their passions regardless of their age.
“It was hard for me, as a 17-year-old girl, to become a pilot because of my gender and my age,” she said, adding that she was occasionally put down, mostly by her male peers.
“They doubted me,” she said. “They said I couldn’t do it. But I used that as a boost to prove to myself that I can fly a plane.
“Girls have an equal opportunity to go after a career in a male-dominated field,” she said. “You can fly an airplane wearing pink nail polish. Airplanes are not just for boys.”
Currently a senior at Santa Fe Christian, Giannotti is president of the high school’s French Club and a member of its Philosophy, Apologetics, Sailing and Camping clubs.
She is also busy submitting college applications. She hopes to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., after graduation.
Although Giannotti would eventually like to become a commercial pilot, she said she doesn’t have a set career path right now.
“As long as I’m in a cockpit as a job, that’s what I would love to do,” she said.

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