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“It was a really wonderful opportunity that very few pilots my age get to experience,” says Nicholas, a junior electrical engineering major from Lambertville, N.J., and a graduate of The Lawrenceville School. “I’ll definitely remember it for the rest of my life.”

Nicholas Stroumtsos could fly an airplane before he could drive a car, but it was a recent experience at Lafayette that convinced him his dream job lay in the clouds.

Stroumtsos spent his spring break serving a distinctive externship with United Airlines pilot Gary Oleson, a 1970 Lafayette graduate, at United’s pilot training center in Denver.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Stroumtsos says. “I’ll definitely remember it for the rest of my life.”

An experienced pilot of smaller planes and a certified flight instructor, Stroumtsos took the controls of a United 747 and 737 in a flight simulator.

“The simulator mimics the pitching and banking of an airplane, you get the same inner-ear feeling of flying,” Stroumtsos says. “You can even feel the bumps on the runway.”

The difference between flying a single-engine plane and a 747? Stroumtsos says it’s “tremendous.”

“The 747 is still ‘just an airplane,'” he says, “but everything happens slowly. It’s like turning the wheel of your car and having time to grab a sandwich while you wait for the car to turn. So it’s common to overcompensate. It takes forever to get up to speed, but once it gets moving, it’s hard to stop.”

From building model airplanes and rockets to flying remote-control planes, Stroumtsos longed for the freedom of the sky and began to take flying lessons in his early teens.

“I soloed when I was 16, the earliest you can legally fly an airplane alone,” he says. “It’s been a passion for me ever since I was young.

“People tend to view flying as getting from point A to point B quickly, but it’s also getting above the world and looking down on it. That’s something special in itself.”

He teaches others to fly gliders, single-engine planes, and two-engine planes, and is even certified to teach flying through clouds, when a pilot can rely only on the instruments to guide the plane.

But with all that, it was his experience with Oleson that convinced Stroumtsos that a career as a commercial pilot would be wonderful.

“I think it was the significant contributor, if not the ultimate cause of my desire to become an airline pilot,” Stroumtsos says. “It was a really wonderful opportunity that very few pilots my age get to experience.”

After 28 years as a pilot, Oleson still finds the job challenging, exciting, dynamic, and rewarding.

“One must consider many things in the decision to pursue the career, including the extensive training required after college to get to the job, the time away from home, the variable hours and changing schedule,” Oleson says. “At the same time, there are many positive things about the job, not the least of which is the opportunity to work in an industry and a profession which does an incredibly good job of providing safe, economical, and efficient transportation while operating very sophisticated aircraft in a complex and dynamic system of air traffic control and climatological conditions.

“The fact that my office moves at 550 miles an hour not only makes for a better view, it also means that every decision and every task is time-constrained and critical,” he says.

Oleson offers Lafayette students the opportunity to serve an externship with him because his Lafayette experience was a “critical building block” in his life.

“It literally laid the foundation in self-direction, discipline, interpersonal skills, critical thinking, and general broadening of my knowledge and experience,” Oleson says.

Stroumtsos believes his own experience at Lafayette will help him as a commercial pilot, especially his knowledge of what is going on electronically behind the control panel.

“Your undergraduate studies may help you out in a pinch,” says Stroumtsos, a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. “It gives you additional insight into the beast you’re flying.”

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