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17-year-old Ellie Parker is pursuing her pilot's license and the Air Force Academy, while keeping busy with numerous other endeavors



TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ellie Parker, a junior at Tualatin High School, flies Cessna airplanes similar to the one behind her at the Aurora St,ate Airport. Ellie Parker sat in a truck with her dad and brother following a fishing trip, and said something she'd never said before. She'd barely given it any thought at all.

“Hey dad. What do you think about the Air Force Academy?” Parker said as her dad turned to look at her. “Doesn't that sound cool?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “But is that what you want?”

For Parker, a Tualatin High School freshman at the time, this simple conversation was the first step toward her pursuit of a pilot's license and the beginning of years of activities designed to get her closer to the academy. Now a junior at TuHS, the 17-year-old hopes to get her pilot's license this summer, and this spring will begin the long application process for the college she seemingly picked out of the blue.

“Military is something that now, all my friends are so used to it, but they never ever would have picked for me ever,” Parker said. “I liked that idea, of something that no one would think I could do — because I didn't think that I could do it.”

After deciding this was the path she wanted to take, Parker joined the Civil Air Patrol, the auxiliary of the United States Air Force. She's part of the cadet program through the Aurora Composite Squadron out of the Aurora Airport, and was recently promoted to Second Lieutenant. But this facet of Parker's life, though time consuming, is just a fraction of what she does.

In addition to CAP, Parker participates in Youth Advisory Council, National Honor Society, National Society of High School Scholars and Key Club, she runs varsity track, is taking a full International Baccalaureate course load, and has maintained a 4.0 GPA in an effort to be valedictorian of her class. Oh yeah, she's also spent most of the last two years learning how to fly planes.

“I think the biggest thing that I get is I do too much, or I need to drop at least one thing,” she said. “I can't start something and not finish it.

Especially as it relates to flying, this mentality has proved to be beneficial for Parker. Her flight instructor Ike Martinson said that because learning to fly takes so much time and dedication, many prospective pilots flounder before completing their training.

“Pilots of any age think they want to do it, then find out how much work or time it's going to take or they get distracted by something else, and they stop paying attention and realize they've forgotten half of what they learned,” Martinson said. “One thing that stands out about (Ellie) is that she is consistently committed to a plan. … Anyone who sticks with it gets points just for their commitment, because it's just as much commitment as it is being smart.”

And though she said she hardly sleeps and barely has time for anything other than her extracurriculars and studying, commitment has never been a struggle for Parker. But does she ever wish she had less on her plate? She laughs and says “This morning?”

Boys club

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Ellie Parker, a junior at Tualatin High School, is dressed in her Civil Air Patrol uniform.

Traditionally, both piloting and the military are endeavors dominated by males. For some high school girls, this might have been intimidating. But for outgoing, confident Parker, it never made her bat an eye.

“Young pilots and female pilots are definitely rare,” she said. “It's not common, but it's been really helpful in a strange way.”

Since piloting is an expensive endeavor, Parker said she's applied for around eight scholarships — many of which she qualified for because she's a girl — to help offset the costs. And not only has it benefitted her monetarily, it's given her a voice she might not have had otherwise.

“You definitely have a presence when you're a girl,” Parker said of her CAP activities. “Especially as I started to get more stripes than (the boys).”

Piloting is generally male-dominant, as well, but that's also never bothered Parker. If there's one thing about this girl that's certain, it's that she seems perfectly fine standing apart from the pack.

An unassuming pilot

When Parker first toyed with the idea of joining the Air Force Academy, piloting wasn't on her radar. There were no pilots in her family, or even members of the military for that matter. It took lots of research and about a year before she flew her first plane, but she began flying around the same time she began learning to drive. After failing her driver's license test the first time, the joke became that she could fly a plane alone, but couldn't do the same with a car.

Even today, Parker is still nonchalant about why she wanted to take to the sky — she doesn't know why she likes to fly. She simply does.

“I've always loved planes and been addicted to heights and that kind of stuff,” she said. “It's an obsession. I don't know. I can't really explain it. Adrenaline and just flying in general — I've always, always loved it.”

Because of the hours it takes in the air and on the ground to get a pilot's license, loving it is necessary. According to Martinson, it's basically like adding two more years of high school on top of high school. But it's all these hours that get pilots comfortable in the air and renders them capable of making the right decisions once there isn't an instructor by their side.

“You're just getting comfortable with the fact that you're strapped to an engine half the size of your car and 6,000 feet above the ground, and it is your responsibility to make sure it stays that way,” Martinson said. “You let them take over one thing at a time until those little things become second nature. There's always a point where you have to stop being their crutch and let them make decisions for themselves.”

That moment came last June for Parker when she soloed for the first time out of the Aurora Airport. The flying itself went great; it was talking on the radio that stressed her out.

“The scariest part is talking on the radios. … It's so easy to say the wrong thing,” Parker said. “I'm like 'Um, Ellie is here, in this plane, and I don't know what to say.' I can do the flying part, but the radio is the hardest part, which usually holds true for a lot of people.”

Meanwhile, as she soloed for the first time, Parker realized she was late for a YAC meeting — one of the symptoms of having too many activities packed into a day.

“Once she finally soloed, she said 'It went great. It took you long enough to let me do that,'” Martinson said. “I was extra careful because she was young and in high school. There's a difference between an adult taking a risk and someone still under parental supervision.”

Yet even after flying solo and being well on her way to a pilot's license, Parker still isn't sure why she loves it so much. Yes, there's the adrenaline and the excitement of it all, but she can't seem to put her finger on what drives her to continue. It's the same with her CAP duties and other activities — once she started, she just couldn't stop. Parker will apply to the Air Force Academy this spring, and with her pilot's license on deck this summer, she said she finally feels like she's in the home stretch.

“It's exciting because it's been a long and rough path, and there's been a lot of bumps in the road, but I'm finally seeing it work out,” she said. “I'm just really excited to see that after all this time and all the blood, sweat and tears, that it's finally paying off.”TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Ellie Parker is a member of the Civil Air Patrol, and will begin applying for the Air Force Academy this spring.

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