When Nicole Ludwig — a graduate of PCC’s Aviation Science program — prepares her helicopter in the morning, she walks around the aircraft. She climbs in and gets ready to start the engine. Minutes later, she presses the starter and the turbine fires up with a ticking noise.
"It starts quiet and calm, but with increasing revolutions, it becomes a roaring and demanding sound," said Ludwig. "That’s when I see excitement in my passenger’s eyes."
When the turbine approaches full revolutions, a high pitch noise fills the cockpit. Once Ludwig receives the clearance for take off from the tower, she raises the helicopter off the ground, turning toward the edge of the Grand Canyon.
"Every time, when I feel the aircraft lifting off the ground, the excitement starts to creep up," she said. "It is as if the aircraft becomes a part of me and I become a part of the aircraft. We both transform into a bird spreading its wings to defeat the gravity and glide towards freedom."
They fly for several minutes over trees and then there is the big drop. The helicopter soars over the South Rim into the Grand Canyon – suddenly 5,000 feet above the canyon floor.
"Some of the passengers scream while others start crying in excitement," Ludwig said. "Most of my passengers have waited their whole life for these few seconds, to glide like a raven from one side of the canyon to the other. These moments I will never forget and they still startle me when I think about it."
Ludwig flies for Grand Canyon Helicopters, piloting scenic flights. The flights are between 30-50 minutes long and bring the passengers over some of the most remote and beautiful areas in the vicinity.
"Flying over the Grand Canyon is thrilling and exhilarating," said Ludwig. "If you love nature as I do, it is the place to be. Most of the passengers are eager to see the canyon from the air."
Ludwig, 36, grew up in Sagogn in the Swiss Alps. It is a small town next to Flims/Laax, one of the biggest ski resorts in Switzerland, where her family still lives. After earning her bachelor’s degree in architecture and working for five years, she began flying helicopters.
"Flying in Europe is very expensive," said Ludwig, who as a young child living in the shadows of the Swiss Mountains got hooked on helicopters by watching rescue choppers hover over the town. "I could not afford to become a commercial helicopter pilot there. At that point I had buried my dreams and focused on traveling the world. Until I met a Swiss pilot who did his training in the U.S. and he gave me good advice and told me I never should give up on my dreams. This probably was the turning point in my life."
In her research of flight schools, Ludwig discovered PCC’s Aviation Science program after bumping into several students at the Hillsboro Flight School.
"I learned that the PCC program goes above and beyond just earning a commercial pilot license," she said. "It provides you with additional knowledge to set myself apart from other pilots who did their training at a flight school. The second important aspect was the availability of an international student visa for that program. This gave me the opportunity to actually work as a helicopter pilot in the United States and build experience towards my career as a professional pilot."
The program helped to find her a job at the Grand Canyon. She says she thanks Patti Wilson, who provided help and, "gave me all the support needed to make my dream come through." It’s why she tells fellow aspiring pilots to take charge of their future and get to school.
"Education and knowledge are key elements to have a successful career," Ludwig said. "The Aviation Science program allows you to prepare yourself for more senior positions down the road. This could be a lead pilot position, a chief flight instructor, a chief pilot or a management position within the aviation company."
Visit the Aviation Science program website for more information about getting your pilot’s license.