Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A 13-year-old Top Gun

From: http://www.sentinelsource.com/news/local/a--year-old-top-gun/article_120f84c6-a5bb-572e-86df-bf90cb39f940.html

WINCHESTER — Last August, Mariah Stebbins spent a week flying an F/A-18 Hornet military fighter jet. She withstood powerful G-forces in a centrifuge, and was crowned Top Gun — last man standing — in a fierce aerial dog-fight contest.
It’s all part of her training as a future U.S. Air Force pilot. But for now, her military career is on hold. At 13, she isn’t even in high school yet.
“But, after that, I really want to join,” she said.
Stebbins, who lives in Winchester, did it all at a week-long Aviation Challenge camp at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, it’s the official NASA Visitor Information Center for the renowned Marshall Space Flight Center.
The hands-on, educational program is designed specifically for young people interested in military aviation, and is structured military-style. Mariah was one of only three girls among the nearly 50 participants in her group. She wore a military battle dress uniform, slept in a same-sex barracks resembling a military bay on a space station, and dined in a mess hall while there.
Every day, she worked with a 15-member team. Besides flying a state-of-the-art simulated combat fighter jet, she trained intensively in simulated emergency helicopter crashes and zip-lined into a lake for simulated parachute water landings. She practiced land and water survival skills, and undertook a Navy SEALS special operations search-and-rescue mission.
“I really liked the survival training, and to be able to be in all the different simulators,” she said. “Right before graduation, we did a mission at night. We had to do an army crawl through the woods without being caught.”
Now in 8th grade, she’s a straight-A student at the Winchester School, where she plays on the soccer team. Her father and stepmother, Mike and Angela Stebbins, own a used car sales and service dealership adjacent to the family home, which Mike built. They’re also a military family.
For more than a dozen years, Angela Stebbins has served with the N.H. Air National Guard, and is assigned to Pease Air National Guard Base in Portsmouth. Until recently, she worked in public relations, writing for the base newspaper and quarterly magazine. After completing an accelerated training program in Texas, she’s now a dental assistant at the base. Like her peers, she’s on duty one weekend per month, and two weeks per year. She plans to continue until she meets the 20-year service requirement for retirement.
Mariah wants to follow in her footsteps, except as a full-time Air Force combat pilot.
“She’s seen everything the military has done for our family, and the opportunity it presents for her down the road,” said Angela Stebbins. “She has what it takes.”
A military career requires attention to detail and determination,” she said. “When Mariah puts her mind to something she doesn’t give up, she doesn’t quit. She’s very reliable and trustworthy, and shows excellence in all that she does. And, she has a passion for flying.”
Mariah may have her stepmother’s proclivity for the military, but it was her father who inspired her love of flying, by chance. Several years ago, she rode along with him wide-eyed when he took an introductory flying lesson at Dillant-Hopkins Airport. He’s since taken one or two more. Not long after, her older brother Dylan, who now lives in Massachusetts, applied to the aviation camp program, but soon backed out.
She wanted to go in his place, but was only in 4th grade. Too young, she had to wait. A year later, she attended a basic level session, and returned in August 2014 for the more intensive mid-level program, where she won “Top Gun” above all participants.
To cover expenses, she applied for a scholarship from the Military Child Education Coalition, a global nonprofit group that provides educational opportunities to children in military families. Not only did the group award her a grant to the aviation program, including expenses, it gave her a second scholarship to the center’s robotics camp the following week.
“It was really different going from aviation to robotics,” she said. “We built and programmed robots and competed in tasks. Robotics was fun, but I liked aviation much more. It was just different.”
No one’s prouder than her dad.
“I’m a little jealous,” he joked. “I think it’s great. She really does a lot of things. I can’t imagine when I was her age flying on an airplane by myself to Alabama for a couple of weeks. She loved it.”
Several months ago, she joined the Monadnock Civil Air Patrol, now faithfully attends weekly meetings, and recently earned her first promotion from cadet to airman. She’s also working towards her private pilot’s license at Dillant-Hopkins Airport. Already, she’s taken a glider flight and has flown a small plane.
Things just fell into line, says Angela Stebbins.
“First she discovered her interest in flying,” she said. “Then she got the scholarship to the aviation program. Then the Civil Air Patrol, which had been inactive for a long time, suddenly started up again. It all just came together.
“We try to balance things as much as we can,” she said. “We want her to enjoy childhood, but we also want to set her up on a good path for the future.”
But, flying’s not Mariah’s only passion. She’s also a competitive race car driver.
Every Saturday from April through September, she drives the No. 10 car in the Young Gun division, ages 12 to 15, at Monadnock Speedway. She’s part of the RAD team (Race Against Drugs), a group of young volunteers who promote a healthy drug-free lifestyle for youth through racing, and raise awareness of drug abuse and prevention in the Monadnock Region. RAD is an offshoot of the National Center for Prevention and Research Solutions program in Florida.
She hasn’t finished in the top three spots yet, but really enjoys the sport, and advocacy work.
“There are quite a few girls involved,” she said. “I’ll probably do it through high school as much as I can.”
Mariah starts high school next year. Today, she and her family are touring the Milton Hershey School, a private residential high school in Pennsylvania, founded by the chocolate magnate. Her stepmother thinks she’d love what it offers. Mariah isn’t so sure. She thinks she’d rather stay close to home and family, and go to Keene High School, she says.
No matter what her choice, Elizabeth Lounder, her homeroom teacher at Winchester School, believes that she’ll excel.
“Mariah is very mature for her age,” she said. “She’s very quiet and unassuming. If it weren’t for us bragging about what she did last summer, no one would ever know.
“She never tries to impress anyone. She’s just quietly pursuing what she wants to do,” she said. “She brings a lot of grace and maturity to whatever she does. If this is what she’s doing at this age, I can’t wait to see her future.”
One thing Mariah’s certain about is returning to the aviation camp in Alabama. She hopes to get another scholarship within a couple of years for the advanced and final program. She wants to be an Air Force pilot.
About that, she’s absolutely clear.
“It’s something I already know a lot about,” she said. “It’s what I really want to do.”

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