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Meet Cecilia Aragon

Cecilia Aragon

Pilot/Computer Scientist

Webcast/Webchat Archives

Who I am
I am a Computer Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center, developing software for flight testing of aircraft and spacecraft. But I didn't follow a traditional path to get to this career.

I earned my master's degree in Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley, intending to pursue a career in 3D graphics software. But something happened along the way -- a friend gave me a ride in a small airplane, and I fell in love with flying and decided to become an airshow pilot.

I have been a member of the U.S. Aerobatic Team twice. I was a medalist at the 1993 U.S. National Championships and the 1994 World Aerobatic Championships, and was the California State Aerobatic Champion. I have been a professional airshow pilot since 1990, and have logged over 4,800 accident-free hours, flying shows and competitions all over the United States and Europe in front of millions of spectators.

Cecelia in her airplane.

I also instruct students at the aerobatic school I founded and at airports around the San Francisco Bay Area. I also give talks and seminars about my experiences from learning to fly to becoming a top-ranked aerobatic pilot.

The kind of flying I do (aerobatic maneuvers like loops, rolls, spins and hammerhead turns) is very physically demanding. I sustain G-forces of up to 12 G's positive and 9 G's negative. What this means is that my body can weigh up to 12 times its normal weight -- or 9 times its normal weight hanging in the straps! I need to train for aerobatic competition as an athlete trains for a race -- by being in good physical condition, eating and sleeping well, lifting weights, exercising and doing yoga regularly. Keeping up a healthy lifestyle can be a challenge when one is constantly on the road, traveling from airshow to airshow every week!

After becoming pregnant with my first child, I realized that I no longer enjoyed being on the road for half the year, and so I stopped flying airshows full time. (Today, I only perform at a few local shows, and I fly only on the weekends.) I looked around for another career that would combine my love of aviation with my skills in computer science, hopefully one that would be as exciting as being an airshow pilot. I found such a career at NASA Ames Research Center, where I develop software for flight testing of aircraft and spacecraft, and for the Mars missions.

In the Computational Sciences Division here at Ames, we are developing exciting new techniques that enable aircraft and spacecraft to be designed more rapidly. It is a thrill to be doing research on the cutting edge of both computer science and aviation/aerospace. An added benefit of my job is the opportunity to fly in the flight simulators here at Ames. Flying the space shuttle simulator was a fantastic experience!

My Career Path
When I was growing up, my big dilemma was whether to become a scientist or an artist. Becoming a pilot was absolutely the furthest thing from my mind. I am a native of Indiana. I graduated from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in mathematics and English literature. I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area to study computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, then stayed to take a job as a computer programmer.

But in 1985, a co-worker offered me a ride in a Piper Archer. I almost turned down the offer because I had always considered small planes dangerous.This was my first taste of something that would eventually change my life. I was in heaven. I said, 'this is my dream, this is it.'"

Immediately, I started taking flying lessons and working towards my dream. Without financial resources, I had to work two jobs to support the flying, often putting in 80 to 100 hours a week, and squeezing the practice in on the side.

flying over the ocean cliffs

But, "where there's a dream there's a way," and six years of hard work later, I had made it -- I was a member of the United States Aerobatic Team.

From the moment I entered aerobatic competition, I enjoyed it. I won the second contest I entered, defeating 18 other competitors in the hotly-contested Sportsman category. Then I entered the Unlimited category, where again, I won the second contest I entered. On my first try for the U.S. Aerobatic Team in 1991, less than six years after I first soloed an airplane, I won one of the coveted slots.

Advice
I am very glad that I earned degrees in math and science before I became a pilot. Having a basic scientific education has opened doors for me everywhere. I can't emphasize how important it was for me to stay in school and go to college even before I knew what I wanted to do with my life. Having a scientific degree has been like money in the bank... it's something no one can take away from you. It has earned me respect and a decent income all my life.

Personal
She and her husband Dave have a daughter, Diana, and a son, Kenneth.

Webcast/Webchat Archives

VTODTWD Webcast - April 25, 2002

 
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