By Jesse Wood
When Sara Bartlett turned 16 years old, her father, David Bartlett, owner of The Speckled Trout in Blowing Rock, told her to jump in the car. Sara’s birthday surprise was waiting for her down the mountain.
On the short drive, Sara fell asleep before waking up at the Hickory Regional Airport to her father saying, “You are going to go flying today.” “Oh boy,” she exclaimed.
Before then, Sara had never really thought about flying. But here on her 16th birthday she was picking between a Cessna and a Piper Cub airplane for her first incentive flight. She selected the Piper Cub, which in retrospect she thought was crazy because it was “the oldest plane out there.”
That first flight eight years ago was mind-blowing and she hasn’t looked back since.
“I just came back awestruck,” said Sara. “I was so excited and so into it.”
Today, she is a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. Recently commissioned, Sara graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which Time Magazine once dubbed “the Harvard of the Sky” for its specialization in aviation education, this past May.
After starting out as a “clueless cadet” at risk of being kicked out of ROTC at Embry-Riddle for being an unambitious college student, Bartlett began to take a serious approach to life and her education. In her time in ROTC, Bartlett persevered through the ranks to become one of only 42 people in her class of 300 to be commissioned. On top of that, she was one of only three women in her class to be commissioned.
Both of Sara’s parents, David Bartlett and Marybeth D’andrea, are obviously excited that Sara found her calling and pursued it through life’s ups and downs. “I am tickled pink that she is happy,” Bartlett said. “Yes. I am a proud daddy.”
During his childhood, Bartlett said he was never exposed to much of anything, so he felt inclined to introduce her to visceral moments like flying a plane. “I wanted her to have confidence and experience things that I never experienced,” Bartlett said. “And you know, the main reason was I knew she would love it.”
Mom, of course, is just as proud of her daughter.
“I think it’s amazing,” D’andrea said. “I am just really happy for her and the opportunity.”
But as moms are wont to do, D’andrea was hoping for something more like a desk job. In fact, Sara was initially on track through ROTC and Embry-Riddle to specialize in unmanned aircraft systems, one of four positions that cadets are shuffled into based on a variety of criteria.
While Sara enjoyed the culture and camaraderie of the Air Force, in the back of her mind, Sara wanted to fly planes – from thousands of feet up in the air. She wanted the calm, exhilaration of the bird’s eye view. She wanted to be a combat systems operator – and not control a drone from a remote location.
Two weeks prior to being commissioned and prior to graduation, Sara received the phone call she was hoping for. Headquarters called down and offered to bump her up from unmanned aircraft systems to the more-coveted combat systems officer.
“I got that phone call and was over the moon,” Sara said.
She said she’s going to be a navigator like Goose in the ‘80s flick, Top Gun. She won’t be controlling the fighter plane, but she’ll be in the air organizing missions and communicating with the fighter pilot and other aircraft in the vicinity.
As the summer continues, Sara will head to Pensacola, Fla., to learn how to fly in the United States Air Force. Depending on the particular plane she’ll be instructed to learn, Sara said she will be learning to fly – or even better, getting paid to learn to fly – for at least the next 2 ½ years.
She hopes to fly either a F-15e or any variation of the C-130.
Born and raised in the High Country and a graduate of Watauga High School, Sara said the best decision she made was to attend a school hundreds of miles away. She also said she didn’t let other people’s preconceived notions alter her horizon, and she didn’t let fear hold her back.
“If you let yourself be scared of everything, you won’t do anything,” Sara said. “I think a lot of it is you just gotta jump.”
That and being surrounded by a supporting cast of family and friends.
“Thank you mom and dad and awesome family and friends,” Sara said.
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