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Alumna flies high as a longtime US Navy pilot

USC Dornsife graduate transported the secretary of state, landed on soccer fields and saved lives during deployments around the world

The Navy's military preparation program was an "amazing opportunity" for USC Dornsife Stephanie Erwin. (Photo/U.S. Navy)

Before her sophomore year, Stephanie Erwin ’04 signed a contract committing herself to Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corp (NROTC), the military preparation program requiring post-graduation service.

One month later was Sept. 11, 2001.

“At first, as I watched the planes hit the towers on TV, I felt like a normal student,” Erwin said. “But later, and especially with the invasion of Iraq, it hit home that I was most likely going to be a part of this war effort.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s in international relations and political science at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Erwin went to flight school.

It’s an incredibly challenging program.

Stephanie Erwin

“It’s an incredibly challenging program,” Erwin said. “There’s a lot of sleep deprivation, and I was constantly forced to think on my feet. Very few people make it through because it’s extremely stressful. … But it was an amazing opportunity.”

Chasing her dream

Alumna Stephanie Erwin was a helicopter pilot

Erwin always knew she wanted to be a pilot.
(Photo/courtesy of Stephanie Erwin)

Growing up in Canal Winchester, a town of about 7,000 residents in Ohio, Erwin’s wanderlust led her to seek a college education out of state. At USC Dornsife, Erwin spent the summers touring the world on submarines and aircraft carriers. After getting a taste of almost every role, she knew that she wanted to be a pilot, even if it meant committing herself to 10 years of service.

Throughout the decade, Erwin was deployed in Puerto Rico, Columbia, Spain, Greece, Oman and, most recently, Bahrain — a small island country near the western shores of the Persian Gulf 124 miles from Iran.

What touched her most came during one of her first deployments on the USS WASP. In 2007, Hurricane Felix had decimated Nicaragua and the surrounding countries.

The best part was when I gave candy to little kids, who smiled despite everything that had happened.

Stephanie Erwin

“As a helicopter pilot, I flew directly into remote villages — often landing in soccer fields — distributing supplies and taking severely injured people to disaster hospitals,” she said. “There I was actually able to save lives.

“But the best part was when I gave candy to little kids, who smiled despite everything that had happened.”

After that deployment, Erwin lived in Italy and on the USS Mt. Whitney, the flagship for the European commander for the United States Navy.

“I went to pretty much every country in Europe on that deployment,” she said.

Back in Bahrain

Next, stationed back in the U.S. for two years, Erwin earned a master’s in security studies, with a concentration on the Middle East, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, at the Naval Postgraduate School in Northern California.

Her final deployment was to Bahrain, where she lived for nearly three years, flying distinguished visitors throughout the Middle East.

“I have flown Prince Philip, the Queen of England’s husband; Condoleezza Rice, when she was secretary of state; admirals; and generals up from one to three stars,” she said.

Although Erwin did not serve in combat, her assignment was considered hazardous duty.

“My car has been Molotov cocktailed, and I’ve been harassed. It happens, but it’s not the norm,” she said.

A respect for the customs of others

Erwin said she gained cultural savvy and sensitivity at USC Dornsife.

“I learned to respect the customs of the people in the countries where I was living,” she said, “In Bahrain, for example, I had to cover up completely during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.”

Erwin particularly recalls a course she took as a freshman with Steve Lamy, professor of international relations, now vice dean for academic programs.

“I really enjoyed the discussions it generated,” she said. “So many of my professors were considered experts on subjects like terrorism and national security, so it was exciting to watch world events unfold and analyze them in real time.”

What I love about aviation is the sense of community and the camaraderie.

Stephanie Erwin

In November, Erwin finished her final deployment. She is now working as a program manager for George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She hopes to pursue a doctorate and eventually a professorship. 

Her return is somewhat bittersweet.

“What I love about aviation is the sense of community and the camaraderie,” she said. “When I was still on the fence about flight school, an aviator told me that it goes by so fast that I shouldn’t worry about the commitment.

“And I can honestly say, having been in almost 11 years, the time has flown.”

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Alumna flies high as a longtime US Navy pilot

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