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LANL: Jocelyn Buckley In Control Of Her Own Plane

on January 24, 2019 - 8:53am

LANL’s Jocelyn Buckley poses with her single-engine Piper Cherokee after flying to Taos. Courtesy/LANL

Jocelyn Buckley pilots her plane home after a day of work at the Lab. This photo was taken before a hail storm that resulted in her plane receiving a new design and paint colors. Courtesy/LANL

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Jocelyn Buckley, of Waste Management Programs at Los Alamos National Laboratory, finishes her preflight checklist and communicates via headset with Los Alamos County Airport traffic. Before Buckley’s takeoff, she looks over at the windsocks, located on both ends of the runway, to verify wind direction. She then initiates “ground roll” down the smooth runway, easing the throttle forward and adjusting the yoke—the plane’s steering wheel—to accommodate ever-changing winds, with crosswind gusts most common during the spring. As the plane quickly gains speed, she cannot help but anticipate the moment she leaves the ground. Liftoff comes fast, the plane’s engine roaring as its wings cut through the air.

“Since I started at the Lab in 1998, I have commuted to work by aircraft because I live in Albuquerque,” Buckley said. “In those early days, I was really afraid of flying because it was a completely different experience for me, sitting as a passenger in a small single-engine plane. The plane accommodated six people, and I usually sat in the far back seat. Whenever we experienced turbulence, I would grab on to the air commuter next to me for dear life.”

Although Jocelyn continued to fly to and from work for the next four years, her fear never quite diminished.

“I told myself that I really needed to conquer this fear,” she said. “In early 2002, I began taking private flying lessons. Yes, I was nervous, but I was also determined.”

Flying on her own terms

“I never gave much thought to flying,” Buckley said with a smile, “although when I was growing up, I was very interested in becoming an air-traffic controller. I never thought I would ever be a pilot in command of my own aircraft! I guess it was that fear of flying in a single-engine aircraft that drove me to becoming a private pilot.”

One year after signing up for her first flying lesson, after having logged approximately 100 flight hours, Buckley received her private pilot’s license. It was not long after receiving this license that she purchased her own private airplane, which she began to use to commute to and from work. Buckley then earned an additional rating in instrument-only flying, which means she can fly “blind” (relying on instruments only) under special conditions, such as flying at night or inside clouds. To acquire this type of rating, Buckley required additional training in rules and procedures related to instrument-only flight, meteorology, and hands-on flights to bolster practical skills in properly handling flight controls. 

“When I first flew solo, I admit I was still nervous,” she said. “I remember as I taxied the plane to the runway, my right foot was literally shaking as it stayed pressed against the airplane’s rudder pedal.” Buckley laughs. “With each flight, however, I became more comfortable in the air.”

Not being nervous anymore does not mean that she has no fear.

“I think fear can be healthy when managed properly,” she said. “It keeps me on my toes when I’m up there. I think too many pilots let confidence overtake their fear, and that’s usually when accidents can happen.”

Although she has been flying solo for several years, Buckley is always working on ways to improve.

“A good pilot is always learning,” she said. “I still go up with my instructor once a month, just to maintain proficiency. I am always eager to explore new things that will strengthen my piloting skills.”

Anyone who has flown commercially has managed to capture something of what it’s like floating miles above the Earth—still, the small windows on such aircraft limit the experience. For a private pilot, however, the experience is much more breathtaking, as it is possible to look out the front and the sides of the plane, taking in expansive views of the sky and the ground.

“It’s so peaceful up there,” Buckley said. “And the New Mexican skies, sometimes there are such beautiful sunrises and sunsets. I’m always taking pictures of the vibrant colors—I never get tired of them.”

Buckley also appreciates the freedom associated with being a private pilot.

“I like being able to get into my plane and just go,” she says. “There are no real schedules you need to follow or luggage that must be checked in. I have flown to places like Sedona, Colorado Springs, Roswell, and even northern Virginia. In the future, I hope to fly to my home state of Mississippi. I’ve always said, home is where you first take-off, and it’s always a reliable place to land and refuel.”

Jocelyn Buckley took this picture of a New Mexico sunrise one morning while flying to work. Courtesy/LANL