From gymnastics to the U.S. Air Force ROTC, USC Viterbi senior Natalie Smith built her life on asking ‘Why not?’
Of the likely careers Natalie Smith considered, pilot was not one of them. Perhaps a spy for the CIA or a broadcast journalist, she thought, growing up in a small suburb in Colorado. But then again, Smith, a senior in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, has never been able to predict her next move, other than that she wants it to be a challenge.
As a child, she immersed herself in competitive sports like gymnastics and track. She was skilled at math and science, sure, but when she applied to USC Viterbi, it was almost a dare to herself. Freshman year proved humbling, and she toyed with switching majors until she homed in on airplanes.
“The rigor and challenge brought me in, and my fascination with airplanes and rockets kept me going,” she said.
Smith, who is an aerospace engineering major, has defined her life by chasing experiences she wasn’t sure she could tackle, with the mantra of ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’ and the steadfast belief she had a good shot at success.
Smith said a turning point for her was when she received an Air Force-sponsored scholarship to start flying lessons her freshman year summer. “I got to solo—fly by myself—in a Cessna 172 with the stunning backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.” The Cessna 172 Skyhawk is a popular single-engine, high-wing aircraft used widely in training student pilots. From that thrill, Smith found a new dedication to her coursework. “Going back to school, I had so much more motivation for what I was doing in the classroom. It was such an inspiring moment,” she said.
One course that particularly proved pivotal was AME 261: Basic Flight Mechanics, taught by Associate Professor Charles Radovich, where she was able to design an airplane from scratch with a team of peers. “I had so much more intuition about how to approach that after my flying experience,” she said. “And from that I thought ‘I can do this; this is actually kind of interesting and fun,’ and it kept me on the path that I am on now.”
The longer Smith spent in the classroom, the more she discovered how the lessons she learned from her professors could translate practically to the broader world she inhabited. Her senior project (for AME 441) is an example of such a practical application.
“It’s based in renewable energy and basically harnesses the vibrational power from a street pole. As the wind makes it shake, we hope to capture that energy and use it to power everyday electric appliances,” Smith said.
While it’s not a new idea, Smith said she and her peers want to see if they can demonstrate, on a smaller, cheaper scale, how such energy can be used long-term to add a little extra charge to a phone or flicker of voltage to a porch light. “It may not replace turbines,” she said, “But it could still help out. Aerospace, specifically, is a huge polluter. But there are ways to mitigate that.”
Beyond her love of design, Smith said that the project has also helped her better understand the role of wind in flight. “Any pilot can benefit from understanding fluid dynamics and how air flows over a surface,” she said. “It can bolster your intuition for when you’re in a cockpit.”
Piloting the Next Chapter
A love of flying and of aerodynamics not only kept Smith from switching majors, but it also introduced her to the U.S. Air Force ROTC, which she joined freshman year on a 4 year scholarship—another ‘why not?’. In keeping with a childlike fascination with flying—humans cannot fly, but we’ve built objects that can!—Smith decided that if she was going to try out the Air Force, she’d go big for the role of pilot.
“I thought it would be a good challenge,” she said. “This is not something I grew up thinking I was going to be doing, and now four years later, I almost have my private pilot’s license, I’m the Cadet Wing Commander, and I’m in the running for a slot to USAF Undergraduate Pilot Training.”
All of Smith’s experiences wouldn’t be complete in Los Angeles without a Hollywood moment. In early 2020, she answered a student film casting call for someone who looked similar to the main actress, Lily Oliver. Smith’s piloting experience helped land her the role, which she filmed in two locations. The film, Hurricane, is now doing the festival rounds, hoping to pick up some buzz along the way.
Of course, Smith is not ready to stop there. In her last few months at USC, she’s taken on a new challenge: gymnastics. A fan of the floor exercise, she’s decided to rekindle her love for the sport and joined the USC club team recently, with which she will be competing in the spring. “It’s my last year at USC,” she said. “I want to see what else I can do.” What she can do, apparently, is anything she sets her mind to and as a result, Smith continues to diversify her friendships and perspectives. She acknowledges her various interests have allowed her to meet people outside of just engineering or just military experiences, a part of attending USC she treasures.
Long term, Smith wants to be a test pilot for Boeing—where she will be working upon graduation, after which she plans to attend an Air Force pilot training program. She sees such a position as a great combination of potential previous military flying experience with her engineering background.
“I have a dream of flying a plane in 15 years and being like, ‘wow, I had a part in designing this,’” she said.
But she also sees it from a female perspective. “As a female engineer who has no family background in this, I want to be a part of building an airplane from the design stage, and maybe help form all these systems better for female pilots down the line,” she said. “That, frankly, will improve aviation safety, so creating a more inclusive design is incredibly important.”
Smith said after all this, she’d love to someday go back to Highlands Ranch, where she grew up, and visit her old high school. “I’d love to share my story—not to recruit anyone, but to show them there is a path they didn’t initially see for themselves. My school didn’t have junior ROTC or STEM programs, but I think it’s important to show what options are out there even if you don’t know what you want to do yet as a 17-year-old!”
Smith said: “You can be an outstanding engineer, even if you’re a struggling first year engineering student. It takes time, especially when it’s all new. I want to share that you can learn anything if you have the drive or support to pursue these things. I encourage people to try new things that will expose them to opportunities they never knew existed.”
She added: “And if whatever you choose doesn’t work out, try something else. The possibilities are endless.”
By Avni Shah