Ever since they were little kids, Blake Wheaton (21C) and Raul Soonawala (21C) have witnessed their fathers’ navigating the skies in private planes. Now both pilots of five years, the two computer science majors can safely say that they’ve caught, what pilots refer to as, the “aviation bug.”
“Once you get up in the plane and you get to see the world from up there, it’s a very different outlook on the world,” Soonawala said. “But it’s not something that stays in your memory because I feel like I keep having to go up more and more.”
Soonawala began flying with family members and instructors in his hometown, Mumbai, India, in middle school. Wheaton, who hails from Amherst, Virginia, started and concluded the process of getting his license in 2016 while he was in high school.
Soonawala noted that the rules and regulations for obtaining a piloting license in India are stricter than those in the United States, where nearly every airport offers a flying school. What could be a 16-day process, as in Soonawala’s case, in the U.S. could take up to three years in India.
Knowing this, Soonawala waited until 2018, when he came to Atlanta for college, to get his full private plane license. When Wheaton and Soonawala received their licenses in 2016 and 2018, respectively, both were already seasoned flyers.
Once coming to Emory, Wheaton and Soonawala began flying themselves out of the DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. Neither had yet formally met the other, until one day during freshman year Soonawala noticed Wheaton wearing an aviation shirt in their shared computer science class. After class, Soonawala approached Wheaton, and the two quickly became flying buddies. Although they have only flown together once thus far, they both said that flying together has changed the way they approach their journeys in the clouds.
“When there’s two of you, you’re able to enjoy it a lot more,” said Soonawala. “You’re able to look out the window and take some pictures, as opposed to having [friends] just taking pictures. Since then, I haven’t flown without another pilot in the other seat.”
Both pilots are licensed to fly single-engine land planes recreationally. Wheaton and Soonawala learned to fly a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, which remains their favorite aircraft. In order to obtain a private pilot license and single-engine land plane certificate, Wheaton and Soonawala attended a Part 61 flight school, which requires a total of 40 hours and mastery of core aircraft and flying procedures.
Wheaton likened learning to fly an aircraft to learning how to juggle.
”There are different circumstances where somebody is throwing a ball at you, and you have to add that ball to the collection that you’re already juggling,” Wheaton said.
The private pilot license only allows Wheaton and Soonawala to fly themselves, friends and family. However, they are both now on track to earn a commercial pilot license that will allow them to fly small groups of people for hire.
Now full-time students, the boys try to fly as often as they can. Wheaton is currently training to obtain a certification to fly larger planes, a track that requires him to fly twice a week at DeKalb-Peachtree Airport. Soonawala flies once a month around the Southeast, often bringing friends along on short trips to northern Georgia and Tampa, Florida.
The boys noted that the flying rates to rent planes in Atlanta are higher than those in their hometowns. Though Soonawala tries to bring friends along as often as possible to split the cost, Wheaton usually prefers the therapeutic calm of flying alone and has never taken a friend up more than once.
Wheaton said his love for flying lies in its “procedural” nature. He and Soonawala both expressed fascination with the rules, regulations and technological aspects of flying.
“Every time you go flying, there is something different that happens,” Wheaton said. “It’s never the same. It tests you.”
Although both have mostly had positive experiences with flying, they’ve had very rare scary moments that stick out, too. Wheaton recalled a tough moment that he encountered during his initial training in high school. When he pursued a solo flight over Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, Wheaton found himself caught in unexpected rough air that made him think on his feet.
“It was turbulence like I’ve never experienced before,” Wheaton said. “Luckily, my training kicked. All I did was fly further downwind to escape the vortex. Then I climbed to fly over it. The flight went according to plan.”
Soonawala and Wheaton noted that they have become better drivers and computer science students after their years of flight training. Through learning how to fly, the pilots have learned to think more analytically about all of the factors when given a computer science problem.
Wheaton’s friend since middle school and current University of Virginia student Lyudmila Avagyan attested to the bond between Wheaton’s flight training and his capabilities as a student.
“In high school, he was very articulate and detail oriented,” Avagyan said. “I feel like that reflects his flying technique, in making sure that everything is orderly and the way that it should be while he is flying. Whether we were in math or English, you could tell that he paid attention to everything.”
Soonawala’s friend Zonadi Nkhoma (17Ox, 19C) marveled at the depth that flying has added to their friends’ characters. Avagyan expressed her belief that piloting can make one more thoughtful, as part of the job requires one to bear in mind the safety of their passengers. Nkhoma agreed, stating that flying with Soonawala facilitated a greater sense of trust in their friendship.
“It takes a lot for me to trust somebody with my life,” Nkhoma confessed. “When we went flying, I felt comfortable with him. Even now that I can fly myself, he’s probably the only other one that I trust to fly [me].”
Both pilots hope to use their skills and passions in their respective careers after college. Wheaton hopes to fly for law enforcement, make corporate flights and possibly pursue a technology-related career.
Soonawala hopes to enter avionics, the automatic side of aviation that focuses on programming planes to fly safely and smoothly without a human pilot.
Besides their love for flying, both pilots also share a love for their Emory education and expressed hopes that they could pursue careers that would allow them to incorporate both passions. Even flying for a major carrier, Soonawala said, would be asking him to give up the studies he has built through Emory’s computer science program.
“I would have considered doing it a couple years ago … if I wasn’t so far into Emory getting the CS degree,” Soonawala explained. “Getting the commercial license makes sense for me because flying is something that I can see myself doing for the next 30 or 40 years.”
The path to obtaining advanced computer science degrees and pilot’s licenses has also gifted Soonawala and Wheaton with a strong friendship. More than anyone else at Emory, the two pilots understand each other’s passions, goals and love for flying. Even though they’ve only flown together once, both Wheaton and Soonawala share a desire to return together to the skies.
“It was a lot of fun,” Wheaton said. “I certainly hope we can do it again.”