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Navy student pilot's path wasn't always smooth sailing

July 15, 2011|By TAYLOR ECKEL | taylor.eckel@herald-mail.com
  • Brittany Churchey, a graduate of North Hagerstown High School, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, and attends the Navy Flight School in Pensacola, Fla.
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U.S. Navy Ensign Brittany Churchey is living her dream, but not in the way she expected.

Churchey, 23, recently graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, but instead of heading to medical school, she set her course for the Navy Flight School in Pensacola, Fla.

Her road to the Naval Academy was rocky, she said, and her years there were not without trials.

"It definitely was a roller coaster ride," said Churchey, a 2006 North Hagerstown High School graduate.

Churchey said she first became interested in attending the Naval Academy when her fourth-grade class visited it on a field trip.

"She just sparked an interest in it from the very beginning," said Churchey's mother, Patti Friend of St. Augustine, Fla. Her father, Don Churchey, lives in Hagerstown.

"I think it really matched my character," said Churchey, adding that it was the structure, rigid schedule, and athletic emphasis that appealed to her.

After a year-long application process, Churchey received a letter from the Naval Academy in April 2006 that threatened her dream.

 "I didn't get into the class of 2010 because my verbal SAT scores were 20 to 30 points too low," she said. "It was crushing."

It was so crushing that Churchey said she threw the letter away without reading all of it.

She said her mom soon retrieved the letter from the trash can and explained to her the benefits of attending a preparatory school for a year.

"I have her to thank," Churchey said. "Because my mom pulled this thing out of the trash can, I graduated from the Naval Academy."

After a year at Northwestern Preparatory School in Crestline, Calif., Churchey was accepted into the Naval Academy.

"I did not want to go," Churchey said. "Looking back on it, one year isn't that much time, and it was definitely worth it."

Churchey said the preparatory school prepared her for the structure and stress of academy life and the emotional stress of leaving home.

"It definitely made the transition a lot easier," she said.

Churchey said she initially intended to major in chemistry and become a doctor, but she realized that her grade point average would not meet the rigorous standards required to study medicine.

As she approached her junior year, Churchey said she was faced with a difficult choice. All midshipmen must sign a contract before their third year that affirms their commitment to finish their studies at the Naval Academy. She said there is a large financial penalty for midshipmen who drop out after signing the contract.

"I was contemplating not signing, and therefore I would not be able to go back," she said.

Churchey sought the counsel of several retired captains and family friends in the Navy, and reached a decision.

"I don't think I could have done it without their help," Churchey said." That was the low point of (my) Naval Academy (experience), delaying my dream."

"It's really cool how another generation really influenced her decision," Friend said. "What has fascinated me is (how) the Navy is such a big family."

Churchey said she changed her major from chemistry to oceanography, but still hopes to one day study medicine, perhaps after her time in the Navy.

The summer before her senior year, Churchey interned with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Hurricane Hunters, an experience that birthed a new dream.

"They actually let me fly a plane and I got a lot of hands-on experience," she said, and added that is when she knew she wanted to become a pilot.

Naval Academy graduates are required to serve at least five years after their graduation, and seniors receive an envelope with a letter telling them their assignment for service on Selection Service Night.

Churchey had applied for Navy pilot, but said she was concerned she would not be selected because she did not have as much aviation experience as some of the other applicants.

"It's very competitive. Next to the Marines, it's one of the most competitive services," she said.

Churchey said she was so nervous that she had a friend open her envelope, and she was thrilled to read, "Congratulations Brittany Churchey. You have been selected Navy pilot."

"The highest point (of the Naval Academy) was the Service Selection Night," she said.

Although Churchey's Navy journey has not always been smooth-sailing, she said she is glad she persevered.

"It was 200 percent worth it," she said. "It makes you a stronger person when you graduate, and you make so many lifelong friendships."

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