Pilots

Summer Williams

September 1, 2007

Summer Williams is what you might call a triple threat: She's a NASA engineer, she's logged 19 years as a dancer and cheerleader, and, as you can probably discern from her appearing on this page, she's also a private pilot. She took her first flight as a 10-year-old native of tiny Anthony, Kansas, on a commercial airliner. Her companion forgot something at the gate and left her alone near the cockpit. "The pilots said, 'You can come in here and stand for a minute,'" Williams says. And well, what normal 10-year-old wouldn't be awed by a panel full of dials and gauges and levers, and two huge steering wheels and seats with all those straps on them? "I told mom I wanted to take flying lessons. She said, 'I'll be damned if I'll give you the money to kill yourself,'" Williams recalls fondly.

Williams eventually left her hometown for Wichita State University, and began studying aerospace engineering. During her junior year she found a Cessna Pilots Center at nearby Jabara Airport and got her private pilot certificate. And, after graduating with her engineering degree at age 21, she moved to Houston, ending up as a NASA project engineer for the International Space Station. Then one day a couple of years ago, while walking to lunch with a couple of fellow engineers, both male, the conversation turned to the upcoming cheerleader tryouts for the Houston Texans. "I'm going to try out so I can go to free games for a year," Williams told them. She'd never been to an NFL game, but whatever. The guys surprised her with an application, which came with conditions: If she introduced them to a couple of cheerleaders, they'd buy her lunch once a week for a year.

She applied anyway. About a thousand women turned up, trying out for one of the 30 or so slots. And, surprise, Williams made the cut. It's a pretty lucrative job: For three practices a week, cheering during home games, shooting a calendar in May, and making 30 charity appearances a season, the cheerleaders get paid minimum wage. "It covers my gas mileage," she says. Meanwhile she's working on her instrument rating, although the airspace is much busier than in south-central Kansas. "It's intimidating to see all the traffic going into the two major airports," she says. "And you see all these fighter jets."

So now you're also probably wondering, did Williams ever hook up her co-workers? "We did have a little gathering after one of our games, and I let them know where we were hanging out." How did the guys do? "They came but didn't get together with any of them," Williams says. "But I didn't get lunch, either."