Monday, February 06, 2017

Erica Villafranca earns 'Wings of Gold' pilot designation with the U.S. Navy

Erica Villafranca's all-time favorite view is the one seen from inside a moving plane's cockpit.

The 26-year-old Fort Smith native and Pocola High School graduate recently obtained her U.S. Navy Wings of Gold in Naval Advanced Training in Corpus Christi, Texas, and is continuing her duty as a student pilot and lieutenant junior grade for the Navy at the Naval Air Station in Jacksonville, Fla. The two years of training to designate Villafranca as a Navy pilot have included challenges and rewards alike.

"The Navy will train you on everything you need to know as a pilot, and once you complete the two years, you get your wings," said Villafranca. "We started off with smaller planes and worked our way up with the training."

Villafranca spent 12 weeks of basic officer training at Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I. She was one of only two female pilots in her graduating class of 80 students.

"Most everyone was really encouraging, even when I left officer training and went to flight school," said Villafranca, who also earned her commercial pilot's license. "Normally, there's only one female in a flight class, but I never had any trouble."

Villafranca then laughed.

"The only trouble I had was me just being smaller," she said. "I'm 5-foot 2-inches tall, so the gear, gloves, helmets and oxygen masks were very large on me."

For Villafranca, class instruction merged with the piloting planes such as the Cessna 172, the T-6 and the T-44B. Someone who never learned to swim, she had to take crash-course swimming lessons with friends before submitting to the Navy's water- and land-survival training at the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla. Villafranca, like her classmates, had to swim while wearing 20 pounds of flight gear.

"Yeah, the boots are steel-toed, and the flight suit is pretty loose, so there's this drag when you're trying to swim," she said. "That makes things kind of difficult."

Villafranca's love for flying began to blossom shortly before she joined the U.S. Navy in 2014. Villafranca previously adhered to the wishes of her parents, Kim Dunigan and Jimmie Howard, both of Pocola, by attending college at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.

"I wanted to join the Navy in high school but everyone was pushing for me to go to college," said Villafranca, who obtained a degree in biology from the the UofA in Fayetteville. "I didn't know what I wanted to do, which is why I changed my major so much."

Villafranca didn't hate college. She just couldn't ignore the metaphorical tug of the U.S. Navy.

"I had no experience; I had never flown by myself before," Villafranca said. "One of my great uncles had a small plane and took me up, and I was only on one or two commercial flights before, but I was going to enlist either way."

In a couple of months, Villafranca is expected to be assigned to her Naval squadron in Whidbey Island, Wash. She will finish her Naval training in June and live in Washington for three years.

During her time away from the Navy, Villafranca spends time with her husband, Andre, and their boxer dog, Zoey. Playing golf and relaxing on the beach with family and friends are Erica Villafranca's favorite non-flying activities.

"I like Florida a lot, so I would like to come back to Jacksonville or Pensacola," Villafranca said. "And I'd like to stay in the military, if I can. I have eight more years, but if you (obtain the) rank of lieutenant commander, you can stay in."

If a military career doesn't happen, working as a commercial pilot would be rewarding, she said.

"In a way, I kind of feel like I've helped influence others, which is nice," Villafranca said. "After my friends saw me join and enjoy the military, a couple friends joined. I directed them to my recruiting station in Fort Smith because they were so helpful.

"There are three people who are from Fort Smith - they are all male - and they are behind me in flight training," she added. "It's nice to keep in touch with them, and it's nice to know that other people from Fort Smith are right behind me."

When asked whether she was afraid of heights, Villafranca laughed.

"I'm not really afraid of heights," she said.

Villafranca then paused for a few seconds before laughing again.

"Well, I'm still a little afraid of heights, but I feel like it's different when you are piloting a plane," she said. "I'm not afraid of heights when I'm in the cockpit."


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