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From East Coast med student to Alaska pilot in less than 4 weeks

Georgetown's Sarah Powell logged 54.6 flight hours in 26 days

Editor's note: This article was updated with additional information Aug. 15.

Georgetown University medical student Sarah Powell had her eyes on becoming a pilot ever since she was a youth but didn’t have the time to pursue her dream until the coronavirus pandemic shut down classes in June. A forced break from making in-person medical rounds allowed Powell to relocate to Anchorage, Alaska, for a month and achieve her dream.

Georgetown University medical student Sarah Powell took advantage of a forced break in her education to earn her private pilot certificate in 26 days. Photo courtesy of ACME Cub Training.

While other college students welcomed the summer with time away from their books, Powell instead went full tilt into flight training mode, cramming 54.6 flight hours into only 26 days. Most flight students need between 60 and 80 hours to earn the private pilot certificate.

“People have always told me that it’s worthwhile to do your flight training all at once and not to dally around,” said Powell, after she returned to the Washington, D.C., area.

Georgetown University medical student Sarah Powell took advantage of a forced break in her education to earn her private pilot certificate in 26 days. Photo courtesy of ACME Cub Training.

Powell searched until she found a flight school that could accommodate the limited time between her classes and practical medical rounds. She was quick to compliment ACME Cub Training instructor Terry Cartee and staff for dedicating their time to keep her—and the Piper Super Cub taildraggers she used—in top shape during the epic session at Anchorage’s Lake Hood Airport.

“He’s 70-something and is a seasoned bush pilot. Terry’s never crashed his Cub and he’s had it for 40 years, so those are pretty good credentials in my mind,” she explained.

Powell learned in a full-bore bushplane. The Piper PA–18 Super Cub has a 160-horsepower engine with 35-inch bush wheels, extended gear, big shocks, and a VFR panel augmented with a Garmin G5.

The medical student is familiar with the grind of long hours and relentless studying, so she mentally prepared herself for a flight training marathon and credited boyfriend and bush pilot Chris Rush for mentoring her and answering questions that invariably arose from the onrush of tackling so many flight training procedures in such little time.

However, Rush almost derailed the effort when he explained VORs to her “completely backwards. But in my defense, I’d never seen one work because the Super Cub didn’t have one”. Practical experience brought additional comfort tracking the VOR stations on the ground, but she prefers a GPS, when available.

Georgetown University medical student Sarah Powell, center, joins ACME Cub Training instructor Steve Williams, left, and Terry Cartee after she earned her private pilot certificate in 26 days during training in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo courtesy of ACME Cub Training.

Powell added that she would like to get more comfortable with off-airport operations and the benefits of a backcountry-capable taildragger. “I had those big tundra tires, but I didn’t really put them to work. Gravel bars, fishing, camping—that’s something I really want to do.” 

Since it remains daylight until the wee hours of the morning during Alaska summers, night flight hours are nearly impossible to log, and Powell’s certificate comes with some restrictions. The 24-year-old can only fly daytime VFR until she completes night cross country requirements and plans are in the works to accomplish that in short order with a Maryland or Virginia flight school.

Her family lives in Alaska and her father is a retired U.S. Air Force physician, so Powell sees the value of combining her aviation passion with her medical expertise when she returns to Alaska after her studies are complete. She said there are doctors in Alaska who have a practice in Anchorage and clinics on the Kenai Peninsula, “and they fly back and forth from the mainland” to the glacier-framed wilderness.

Powell said she might consider following in their footsteps when the timing is right, but for now, additional ratings and certificates are long-term goals after her medical residency requirements are well behind her.

Georgetown University medical student Sarah Powell flies a Piper Super Cub near Anchorage, Alaska. Photo courtesy of ACME Cub Training.
David Tulis

David Tulis

Content Producer
AOPA Media Content Producer David Tulis joined AOPA in 2015 and is a private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings and a tailwheel endorsement. He is also a certificated remote pilot and co-host of the award-wining AOPA Hangar Talk podcast. David enjoys vintage aircraft ad photography.
Topics: Student, Taildragger

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