Credit: Sarah Hallam | Courtesy

Computer science junior Sarah Hallam said she savors the serene atmosphere of the recent super bloom as she takes on the exhilarating challenge of solo piloting a plane through the San Luis Obispo sky.

“You can feel the flow of air over the wings and under you while feeling the wind a lot more,” Hallam said. “It’s such a neat experience.”

A torn shirt, displayed with the date of Hallam’s first solo flight, is pinned to the wall of the Cal Poly Aerospace Engineering hangar in San Luis Obispo, where she piloted the plane. Hallam said the torn shirt holds symbolism behind the tradition of soloing a plane.

“In the olden days you would have your student sit in front and instructor sit in the back,” Hallam said. “Anytime the instructor wanted to talk to the student they would have to pull on their shirt to get their attention.”

Cutting off the back of a shirt symbolizes that the student pilot no longer needs their instructor to pull on the back of their shirt to fly a plane.

During her internship at General Atomics last summer, Hallam discovered her passion for aviation while working alongside fighter and general pilots. She was an international strategic development intern for the Japan MQ-9B SeaGuardian program. She spoke with them about her desire to obtain a pilot’s license which sparked her interest to do a demo flight.

“I’ve always wanted to get my pilot’s license and then I took a demo flight, and I just fell in love with it,” Hallam said. “I’ve been obsessed ever since.”

Hallam has since then been training at Cal Poly’s Aerospace Engineering Hangar in San Luis Obispo. 

Credit: Sarah Hallam | Courtesy

Her instructor, professor Eric Paton, teaches at the College of Engineering at Cal Poly for the Materials Engineering (MATE), Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME) and AERO departments.

MATE is the field of materials engineering that investigates the interplay among the atomic/molecular configuration of materials, the processing techniques utilized to modify the configuration, and the impact of the structure on the characteristics of the material, according to the C al Poly Material Engineering homepage.

IME employs engineering techniques and analyses to facilitate the manufacturing of all goods and services, while also being dedicated to enhancing business operations through design and improvement efforts, according to Cal Poly’s info fliers to prospective students.

Paton holds certifications as a flight instructor for the student private pilot program, as well as a commercial pilot and an instrument pilot. Paton utilizes a Cessna 150G aircraft to train each student. The instrument pilot certification is earned through training that focuses on operating an aircraft using solely instrument references, while a Commercial Pilot license permits the operation and navigation of aircraft for passenger and cargo transportation. Each student in the program receives instruction in Paton’s Cessna 150G aircraft.

Following her through her aviation journey, Paton speaks highly of Hallam. 

“Sarah is an exceptional student pilot,” said Paton. He mentioned how Sarah is on track to receive her pilot’s license before the end of the spring quarter. 

Instructor Eric Paton with Sarah Hallam. Courtesy

For students wanting to get involved in aviation, Paton said joining the Mustang Aviation Club on campus is a great way to start.

During Fall 2023, the Mustang Aviation Club will organize a ground school, as well as an Airport Day event where local pilots will provide complimentary airplane rides. Additionally, Cal Poly students will have access to simulators at no cost.

Due to the high cost of aviation, Hallam said she had to save up money in order to afford the training.

For students seeking a budget-friendly alternative to aviation Hallam said she recommends gliders which are aircrafts that are designed to fly without the use of an engine. She said it’s a cheaper and easier introduction to aviation. 

Hallam said she envisions a future in aviation and is contemplating a full-time career as a pilot, driven by her passion for the profession. She is currently an intern at NASA at their jet propulsion lab and will be working full-time doing a co-op at SpaceX for Fall 2023.