Who were your closest friends at Villa? I came to Villa in 6th grade and graduated…
An Alumna Autobiography
Priti Bhatnagar, Class of 1999 ~ Navy Test Pilot
(as seen in Villa Connections Magazine 2020)
When my parents moved to Pennsylvania for work shortly after I was born, they started looking for good schools, and Villa Maria Academy Lower School was the top recommendation they received. I attended Villa from 1st through 8th grades. Throughout the years, Big Sisters/Little Sisters, the Spring Show, Mission Day, and the Family Mass and Picnic all stand out as traditions I enjoyed. I remember the teachers being caring and enthusiastic. Along with being great academic teachers, one thing that sticks out is the emphasis they placed on respecting others. I don’t think I realized it then, but looking back, I know that even outside my close group of friends, my classmates and I treated each other with respect and kindness.
I went to Villa Maria Academy High School and then college at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, New Hampshire, where I dual majored in Aviation Flight Operations and Aeronautical Engineering. I thought about attending a military academy when I was looking at colleges, but I wasn’t sure enough at the time that was what I wanted to do. A few of my undergraduate professors had been military test pilots, and this career seemed interesting to me. They advised me that as a civilian, the next step would be to get a master’s degree. I followed their advice, applied for graduate school, earned an M.S. Aerospace Engineering from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
During and after earning my undergraduate degree, I worked as a flight instructor and scenic pilot. I had an internship as a production test pilot before graduate school and flew new aircraft when they came off the assembly line before delivery to customers. I realized in graduate school that I wanted a job where I felt like I was making a difference. Joining the Navy was a way for me to have a career where I felt like I could make a positive contribution to society, but also allowed me to fly and continue pursuing my goal of becoming a test pilot. I attended flight school at NAS Corpus Christi, Texas, and they selected me for the E-6B aircraft. I was then based at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for four years flying the E-6B Mercury, an airborne command post and communications relay aircraft. After applying to the United States Naval Test Pilot school several times, they accepted my third application. I have been based at NAS Patuxent River since 2016, and currently serve as a test pilot for the E-6B.
As a Naval officer, I ensure that the group of Sailors I lead are ready, and I take care of them, both professionally and personally. I make sure we meet our training requirements, and various administrative tasks are completed day-to-day. As a test pilot, I work with a team of test engineers. When we have new capabilities to test, we write a test plan, execute the ground and flight tests required, and then report on our results.
Each test is a little different depending on what we have to do, but a typical day for a test flight starts with preflight planning. I check the weather and any notices for the airfields and airspace we will be using. On some trips, we use pre-determined airspace and some flights I’ll plan a route. Then we go into a brief where the test engineers and aircrew get together and review the tests we are performing that day. On each preflight brief, there are also some items we cover before every flight, usually pertaining to safety and emergency procedures. After the brief we move to preflight, where we get the airplane powered up and make sure the aircraft systems and instrumentation are working correctly. After preflight is complete, it’s time to fly. If everything goes smoothly, from brief to takeoff is usually about 3 hours. The length of our flight will depend on what we must do that day. After we land, we’ll do a post-flight inspection and de-brief with maintenance, aircrew, and test engineers. This ensures that the aircraft is ready for the next flight, gives us a chance to review what we completed and go over any lessons learned. We have to fly with at least 2 pilots and 1 flight engineer on the flight deck. Depending on the test, we may operate with test engineers, but often we will provide them our test data after landing. If we are doing mission systems testing, we’ll fly with a crew of 4-6 additional aircrew. Typically our flight test events are 4-6 hours long. In the fleet, operational missions are usually 8 – 10 hours.
The favorite aspect of my job is definitely getting to fly different types of aircraft. My primary platform is the E-6B, which I enjoy flying, but I am very grateful to have the opportunity to operate other types of aircraft at my squadron as secondary platforms. The most challenging thing is something that I think anyone who works for a big company or enterprise has to deal with – paperwork!
I’ve flown all over the country in the E-6B, as well as a few trips overseas, and it’s hard to pick a favorite place. If I had to pick two favorites, I’d probably choose Key West, Florida, and anywhere in Alaska. The contrasting environments of tropical blue water and snow-covered mountains are quite different but both beautiful.
My experience at Villa has impacted my life by giving me the skills it takes to succeed as a professional, by instilling in me the value of treating others with respect and kindness, and by imparting in me the confidence to explore the world around me.
As a professional, there are three skills in particular that I attribute to my time at Villa: time management, attention to detail, and discipline. These things were key to everything I did at Villa – from the time I put on my uniform in the morning; to when I took notes in class that teachers inevitably graded on penmanship and the proper use of red underlines (at least they used to be!); to managing an academic workload with extra-curricular activities. They may have been small tasks in grade school, but the underlying skills required to execute them apply directly to my job every day. Every time I contribute to a report that will impact fleet capabilities, run a checklist, or execute a standard or emergency procedure in the airplane, I’m using the same skills that I honed during my time at Villa Maria.
As a leader, and really just a human being, learning how to respect and treat other people with kindness is one value that has directly impacted my life since Villa. While being a leader can sometimes mean enforcing rules and being firm, it, more importantly, means taking care of your people. Simply being kind to others can go a long way in building the mutual trust that is required when you work with a team of people.
Finally, the myriad of experiences I had at Villa helped build confidence in me to try new things and not be afraid to take on new challenges. My teachers at Villa provided support, but they also allowed students to grow as individuals and learn how to be resilient in the face of obstacles.
The Big Sister/Little Sister tradition, the Spring Show, Mission Day and the Family Mass and Picnic all stand out as traditions I remember and enjoyed.