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Navy takes Tribal member’s dream off the ground

Most people’s childhood dreams remain unfulfilled, but Whitney Heer, Tribal member and descendant of the Toupin family, has worked to make her dreams
a reality.

She serves as a lieutenant junior grade in the U.S. Navy. Heer attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School in Rhode Island, the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland and primary flight training in Texas. She currently hones her helicopter piloting skills at advanced flight training in Florida as a student naval aviator.

“I’m just starting to learn the helicopter. I’m in ground school right now,” she said. “It’s very fast-paced. I’m excited. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Heer celebrates her graduation from the United States Naval Academy with her sister in 2016.

Camp to career

She wanted to become a pilot at a young age after her mom took her to the Star Spangled Salute Air Show at Tinker Air Force Base in Midwest City, Oklahoma.

“The Thunderbirds came that year, and I told my mom, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ My mom said that was a great goal. My mom has always been extremely supportive of whatever I wanted to do,” she said.

Following the air show, Heer’s mom heard about the University of Oklahoma Sooner Flight Academy through her job at Gordon Cooper Technology Center. Heer attended the weeklong summer camp for six years where she learned aerodynamics, discussed flight planning and launched rockets.

“At the end of the week, we had the opportunity to take an airplane ride with an OU pilot, and I thought that was the coolest thing ever,” she said. “I kept doing that every summer, and then I eventually joined the Civil Air Patrol.”

It was there where she achieved her first solo flight.

While attending Shawnee High School, Heer thought about her plans following graduation and participated in the Tribe’s youth Individual Development Account program. While receiving a financial education, she also learned about Potawatomi culture as part of the curriculum.

She considered attending the Air Force Academy as a way to earn a degree and fly. However, she met a Naval Academy graduate who suggested she participate in Summer Seminar for a preview of school and military life. She took the advice.

“I just felt really at home at the Naval Academy, and I loved it,” she said. “On top of that, the Navy has more pilots than the Air Force does. So I figured I’d have a better chance of getting a pilot slot.”

So, she joined the Navy.

Academics

During the Naval Academy Preparatory School, Heer adjusted to the structured environment of the military and prepared for the high academic standards of
the academy.

While considering degree options, oceanography caught her attention. Students in the field seemed pleased with their choice, and the professors appeared reasonable, enthusiastic and helpful. Looking at the curriculum, she relished the chance to study tornadoes.

“Having grown up in Oklahoma, tornadoes are pretty fascinating, and I knew that was one of the classes that you could take in oceanography,” she said. “I thought the ocean was pretty cool. We don’t live next to the ocean, so I chose oceanography. It was much different than I thought it was going to be, but I still loved it.”

It involved more mathematics than she expected. However, she also encountered some interesting scientific material for the first time. The degree required a course in underwater acoustics and sonar, which became one of her favorite subjects. Heer aspires to enter Naval Postgraduate School and obtain a master’s degree in the subject.

Pairing acoustics with helicopter flight training creates the ideal path towards her career goal — hunting submarines.

Jets to helicopters

Heer’s interest shifted from jets to helos as she attended flight school. The more she learned, the more she realized they encompassed a wide variety of missions, exercises and opportunities that appealed to her adventurous side.

She debated the change in focus at first. Her on-wing instructor, a helicopter pilot, held the responsibility for seeing Heer through her first Navy solo flight. Upon meeting, Heer insisted she wanted to fly jets.

“Then we did a few flights, and she said, ‘You’re going to be a helicopter pilot.’ I said, ‘No, I’m not. Over my dead body I will be a helicopter pilot,’” Heer said, then laughed. “She definitely did not try to influence my decision at all but definitely had a lot of good sea stories about helicopters.”

After primary flight school, Heer selected them as her preference instead of jets. She hopes her naval assignment aligns with MH-60 Romeos someday. The crews placed on that type of helicopter often look for submarines and accompany warships on missions. The potential for her station assignment also excites her. Heer joined the Navy as a way to see the world as well.

“As a kid, my parents took me and my sister to the national parks every summer,” she said. “I love meeting different people, seeing how they do things differently than we do in Oklahoma. … I joined the Navy for all the different opportunities to travel and fly. I love flying.”

Heer thrives on experiences and putting forth all of her efforts. She channels her apprehensions into creating chances to excel, and the results speak for themselves. Heer advises others to follow her lead.

“Don’t quit,” she said. “If it weren’t hard, everyone would do it.”