Young Chugiak pilot inspires others to reach new heights

Thursday, November 16, 2017 - 13:07
  • Laura Joy Erb poses in front of her family’s Cessna 150. Erb, a sophomore at Boston University, is an accomplished pilot who competed in the Short Take Off and Landing competition at the 2016 Valdez Fly-in and Air Show when she was just 18 years old. (Photo courtesy Laura Joy Erb)
  • Laura Joy Erb, center, poses in front of her family’s Cessna 150 with her mom, Bobbi Jo, and dad, Wes. The younger Erb, a sophomore at Boston University, is an accomplished pilot who competed in the Short Take Off and Landing competition at the 2016 Valdez Fly-in and Air Show when she was just 18 years old. (Photo courtesy Laura Joy Erb)

BOSTON, Mass. — Laura Joy Erb was the second woman to ever compete in the Short Take Off and Landing (STOL) Competition featured at the annual Valdez Airshow.

Her bravery has inspired other females across the country to compete.

Erb said STOL is the height of the Valdez airshow because flying into Alaska requires precision due to shorter runways.

“When you fly into Boston or New York or these big cities, you’re landing on huge paved runways that are a million miles long,” said Erb, a sophomore at Boston University. “In Alaska, you’re not necessarily landing on a runway that’s paved. It might be 100 feet long. It might be some gravel or some mud or it might be partially submerged in water.”

Although Erb did not win the STOL competition, she still did better than she expected despite feeling the burden of being a young female weigh on her beforehand.

“It was really intimidating because all the pilots I had ever looked up are in this crowd and they’re watching me,” Erb said. “What if I mess up and they’re like. ‘Figures, she’s a woman’ or, ‘Figures, she’s too young’?”

Erb said she’s most proud of how she’s inspired other pilots to compete in this male-dominated competition.

“A girl named Lydia Jacobs who’s from Maine … she apparently saw a video of me competing and was inspired to pick up her whole life, sell her car, fly in her [plane] from Maine all the way to Alaska and compete in the airshow this year,” Erb said. “The coolest thing I’ve ever done in my whole life is give her an inkling of an idea that she could do something that cool.”

Erb started her flight career with the Young Eagles, a group that teaches children to fly in Alaska.

“Right now, there’s definitely a huge gap,” Erb said. “I’d say the average age of a pilot is probably about 65. There’s not really a lot of new pilots coming into the industry.”

Erb’s parents both instilled a hardworking attitude in her which gave her the determination she needed to get her pilot’s license at 17 and compete in the STOL competition at 18.

“The idea of not getting things done if I said I’m going to get them done and the idea of just being lazy and not doing something is so foreign to me,” Erb said. “If you say you’re going to do something, you do that.”

A standout math student when she was at Chugiak High, Erb is currently studying computer engineering at BU and plans to utilize her fluency in German and Spanish to work abroad. But she always wants to return to her home.

“I want Alaska to be my touchstone,” Erb said. “So, I want to go back to Alaska for a few years, then go work abroad for a few years, then come back to Alaska for a few years … Alaska is always going to be my home base.”

To her engineering peers, Erb is clearly very smart and they enjoyed learning about her unorthodox life at home.

“She’s very passionate about engineering, which I think is really cool,” said sophomore Katie Mossburg. “And then as I got to know her better, she’s a really good friend and she’s super supportive.”

Erb’s work has gotten more female pilots inspired in an area where the gender stereotypes aren’t very well known, Mossburg said.

“She’s one of very few female pilots apparently,” Mossburg said. “She’s been working really hard to break that ceiling in a way that I didn’t know was around.”

Despite breaking barriers in one field, Erb is still a normal college student from a small town.

“She came into class the very first day but she came in like 20 minutes late,” said sophomore engineering major Johnathon Cook. “She’d gotten really lost because she wasn’t used to cardinal directions in a city.”

Nick Turrisi, a sophomore studying engineering, said he met Erb at their BU orientation. Turrisi was fascinated with her love for nature.

“I thought she was so cool because I knew she was from Alaska,” Turrisi said. “She’s really into wildlife and nature.”

Sabrina Schnur is a journalism student at Boston University.

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