Local Woman Soars To Great Heights

Naval Pilot Plans To Receive Her Wings
As A Childhood Dream Becomes Reality

By Steve Jusseaume

Hampton Union, Tuesday, October 14, 2003

[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
Navy Ensign Leigh Shannon stands atop a T-34 trainer.
[Courtesy photo]

HAMPTON --A Hampton woman is set to begin carrier training in single jet engine planes this week, following pre-flight classes in Florida and a stint in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Ensign Leigh Shannon, 23, is headed back to Texas this week to begin training in T-45s. Site spent the past week on a little rest and relaxation at home with her parents and friends, and talked about her budding career as a Navy pilot.

"Anyone can land a plane on the ground; I want to land them on a boat," Shannon said casually over coffee Friday, excited over the thought of landing jets on the massive decks of aircraft carriers, decks that don't look so massive from the cockpit of a jet traveling more than 500 nautical miles per hour.

Shannon will be stationed at the Naval Air Station in Kingsville, Texas, for the next several months, after which she expects to get her wings. If she successfully completes her training, Shannon will advance to the lieutenant junior grade in June.

Though she has already soloed and has more than 300 hours of air time, "I'm still considered a student until I get my wings next year," Shannon said.

A graduate of Winnacunnet High School, Class of 1990, Shannon is the daughter of Jerry and Daragh Shannon of Hampton. She has two siblings, a sister, Casey, 25, and a brother, Jimmy, 21. A graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., her interest in the Navy stems, she said, from the stories told by her father and grandfathers when she was young.

"I remember hearing stories from my grandfathers, when I was very young, about flying. I loved the stories and always wanted to fly," she said. In junior high Shannon wanted to be a veterinarian. She played three sports in high school: Soccer, swimming and men's lacrosse.

"In high school I got more active, and I thought, 'I want to do something cool.'"

She first trained in single prop T-34s, then moved up to duel prop T-44s. She has flown in an F-14, but not at the controls.

"I've never worked so hard at anything in my life," she said of her training thus far.

After Texas, she'll likely be stationed in Virginia, and eventually train in C-2 Greyhounds or E-2 Hawkeyes, the scout planes with the large bulbous radar on top.

"It's called a radome, and it's pretty much an eye in the sky," Shannon said. "It's the lead plane on tactical missions. You're up there as lookout, relaying information on what's ahead back to the squadron."

Part of the training that is most interesting, Shannon said, is learning what she calls "situational awareness."

"It's something that can't be taught," she said. "It's something you have to figure out yourself. Like slowing time down, thinking as fast as your ship. That plane is moving fast, you're talking to other people, you're navigating ... it's multidimensional. I love it."

Shannon is not thinking short term. "Five years? I don't know. I like the fact that I don't really know where I'll be going next. But I would like a dog," She laughed, preferring to think long-term.

As part of the training deal, Shannon must give the Navy eight years of her life, but she plans on making flying a career. "Test piloting maybe, which sets you up for NASA," Shannon said.

But for now, she's very happy where she is. "I can go down to the airfield and sign out a plane. You sign it out for two hours at a time and just take off and practice everything you've learned so far," she said.

"I love flying solo. Friends ask me where they can get in touch with me. 'What's you're work phone?' they'll ask. Well, I don't really have a work phone in the cockpit, but I've got one hell of a view."