When Lt. Heather Cupitt was a small child she had a dream of being a pilot.

"My dad was in the Marines and when I was very young he would always show us clips of him being on the USS America during Vietnam working on the F4 Phantom," she recalled. "Seeing him around aircraft made me realize that if my dad could work on them then maybe I could fly them. That got me interested in aviation just being around that environment."

Now, at the ripe old age of 23, Cupitt has not only learned to fly, she diversified-and added a transcontinental air race for women into the mix just for fun.

Cupitt's voyage started with a patriotic desire, and financial consideration.

"I joined ROTC because I always wanted to be in the military," she said. "My dad was in the military during Vietnam, and my grandfather was in the Army, but now there isn't anyone in my family in the military, and I think that everyone should have at least one person in their family serve."

But, she added, she'd already been accepted to Embry-Riddle University-a school well-known for its aviation and aerospace education-in Daytona Beach, Fla., and that it wasn't a cheap school. She heard about ROTC through a college fair at her high school.

After examining the program she learned that she could have the opportunity to go to school, be in the military, and not worry about the financial burdens that accompany an education.

"The Army Reserve offered me a two-year scholarship," she recalled. "They gave me money to go school for (my junior and senior years), they paid for my tuition, gave me book money, and (gave me) a stipend which helped to paid for rent and food each month. So I didn't necessarily have to worry about (making time for) ROTC, going to school and learn how to fly, AND getting a job. They help you take care of that."

While the university may have taught Cupitt to fly, she said the ROTC taught her other valuable skills.

"One thing ROTC taught me was time management. Going to school and classes I got to pick my schedule. I had required ROTC classes-and on top of that I had flying," she said. "It taught you how to balance time, how to balance your friends and your family, and leadership skills."

And she has lots of friends.

"It was like a big family," Cupitt added. "We pretty much did everything together-I was very fortunate because we had a close class and I would have missed out on the great opportunities had I not gone ROTC."

After she accepted her scholarship-she contracted when she was a junior-she drilled with a local reserve unit through a program called the Simultaneous Membership Program, until she commissioned as a second lieutenant. That way she could shadow the unit's officers and learn what being an Army officer was about.

Part of her education included learning to first fly a Cessna 172, then she moved onto gliders and seaplanes-and Cupitt used her flying skills immediately after graduation to prove a point-she was ready to fly.

As a 21 year-old, she said she had an opportunity to fly in the Air Race Classic. Embry-Riddle and the Army ROTC program helped sponsor her so she and her teammate could compete.

"Embry-Riddle had never competed in the air race before-it was (my first air race) as well," she explained. "So I flew from Daytona Beach to Oklahoma City where the air race started, then went to Nebraska, Kansas, Kentucky, New York, Vermont, Maine, and we ended in St. Johns in BC Canada.

"We placed 3rd place in the college teams...and then (we) flew from St. Johns Canada all the way down the east coast back to Florida."

She said there were 47 two-woman teams-it was an all women race-she flew in a Seneca 172, establishing her fastest time so far, and flew over 4,000 nautical miles. She practiced not only what she learned about flight, but what she learned about confidence, leadership, time management and responsibility.

And then Cupitt made another decision she said has taken her closer to all her goals-she chose to serve in the Army Reserve after graduation because she said it offered her more of what she wanted. She was allowed to select her branch-in Cupitt's case it was aviation-and she could stay close to home and maintain a civilian life as a flight instructor.

"And I got to go to all the same schools they do in the active Army. When I first contracted with the ROTC they gave me the opportunity to go Airborne school," she explained. "Then when I contracted and commissioned with the Army Reserve I was slotted to go to flight school and there are a number of schools that are required for flight school. The Army Reserve completes all the required schools just like active duty.

"We get the same opportunities as they do-I got to go to (Survival Escape Resistance and Evasion) school, to Dunker school, and I got ...the German Armed forces proficiency badge which isn't available at a lot of posts."

Dunker school teaches pilots what to do if they crash in water, while SERE school is a required school that every military aviator has to complete. Cupitt explained that it is a three week survival school that teaches pilots how to evade, resist and escape.

"It is one of the best schools I have been to. It teaches you confidence if you crash and have to leave your helicopter, teaches you how to evade the situation and resist capture and it lets you work with a team of people," she said. "And also gives me the confidence to do those tasks on my own.

She said in her four years in the Army Reserve she has had her ups and down-her favorite so far was learning to hover in a helicopter and her most challenging moment so far was her time in SERE school. But through it all she has had the praise of her husband-a Kiowa helicopter pilot-and her parents.

"Mom and dad are very excited for me," Cupitt said. "Mom thinks it's great that I am a female in the Army, and my dad will brag to their friends and our family any time...because they are so proud of my accomplishments and how far I have come,"

Yet she said her most exciting moment is on the immediate horizon-she volunteered to deploy to Iraq in October.

"I'm itching to go on my first deployment and can't wait for my experiences, whether good or bad I am really excited about it," she explained. "I was in flight school for the last year and a half and I have friends who I commissioned with who are already back from Afghanistan or Iraq.

"I feel like it is my turn to go. It's a right of passage-being in the military, and deploying and sha
ring your experiences with other people."