The day 16-year-old Ruth McCullough soloed in a plane for the first time, she couldn’t legally drive herself home alone.
It was just a few days before Christmas when McCullough, a junior at Crescent Valley High School, flew the single-engine Cessna plane on her own and landed at the Corvallis Municipal Airport — becoming one of the youngest pilots in the state to fly solo.
“When I landed I got this great sense of accomplishment, like everything else just kind of seemed small,” McCullough said. “Driving seemed a lot easier after that.”
Dallas Enger, chief flight instructor for Corvallis Aero Service, recalled watching the landing from the ground.
“There was no way you could tell this was a student, much less someone so young,” Enger said. “She’s very good, compared to all pilots, not just for her age.”
A love of heights
As far back as she can remember, McCullough has always had a love for being up in the air. When she was just 5 years old, her parents took her to the CN Tower in Toronto, which features a 2.5-inch glass floor on its 1,122-foot tall observation deck. While most who came across it were shying away or nervously stepping on it, McCullough recalled running to it.
“I jumped on it,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t know why but I’ve always loved heights.”
Years later, she begged her parents to let her go skydiving. For her 16th birthday, they made a compromise: Instead of jumping out of a plane, McCullough could try flying one. So they arranged for her to take her first flying lesson with Enger.
McCullough said she didn’t know what to expect, but the moment she took control of the flight stick for the first time, she knew she had found something special.
“You’d think it would be stressful, but it was just this adrenaline rush,” she said. “But you’re forced to think about what you’re doing and nothing else, so it just overflows anything else you were thinking about. It blocks everything out.”
Her father, Nason McCullough, said he knew right away that Ruth had found her calling.
“She just had this big smile on her face the whole day,” Nason said. “Every time she goes up there in the sky, she’s got this smile for days.”
After her first lesson, Ruth said she tried to learn everything she could about flying. Soon it became her favorite subject, and she talked about flying with anyone she could find. But since she was the only student at her school learning to fly, conversations with friends were pretty limited.
“When I talk to my friends about flying, they think it’s great, but they don’t really understand,” Ruth said.
In doing research about aviation, Ruth said she was excited to find out about the 99s, an international organization of female pilots. The group, named for its 99 charter members that included Amelia Earhart, today has more than 5,000 members in more than 30 countries. Ruth is by far the youngest member of the local branch, which is based in Bend.
“Talking to these women has been great because they understand it,” McCullough said. “It’s been really nice to find other women who share the same passion.”
A future in aviation
The FAA requires all aspiring pilots to be at least 17 in order to obtain a private pilot license. With her 17th birthday several months away and 22 of the required 40 hours of flight time under her belt, Ruth is well in line to be one of the youngest licensed pilots in the state.
“I never really had much thought about what I wanted to do, but I think I’m going to pursue a career in aviation,” she said.
Ruth is also looking at colleges that specialize in aviation and hopes to one day earn her commercial license. But she’s also got some immediate plans for when she turns 17.
“One of the best parts about flying is that amazing sense of freedom. So it’s pretty exciting thinking I’m only a few months away from my license. Because once I get it, I’ll be able to fly wherever I want,” she said. “I’m thinking I want to go to a beach, or up over the Cascades. Maybe both.”