Samantha Bledsoe sat at the hangar anxiously waiting for the frost to melt off the wings of her Cessna 150 airplane at the Mount Pleasant Regional Airport.
Bledsoe knew she was running late and the fate of four puppies depended on her taking off on that frigid January morning for the 90-minute flight to Newberry.
Bledsoe, a rising senior at the College of Charleston, was volunteering for Pilots for Paws — an animal rescue organization that utilizes pilots around the country.
“The puppies were in a kill shelter, so I knew I had to get up there as soon as I could,” said Bledsoe, who is a member of the school’s varsity equestrian team. “The only thing I could do was sit there and wait for the frost to melt. That was so frustrating.”
Several hours later she was finally in the air and arrived just in time to collect the mix-breed puppies. But the animals were only a quarter of the way to their final destination in New York. Bledsoe’s job was to get the puppies from Newberry to Raleigh for the next leg of their journey. Since Bledsoe's departure from Mount Pleasant was delayed, she was running behind and the next pilot had to cancel his portion of the transport.
“I had two choices: I could spend the night in Newberry and take the puppies to Raleigh in the morning or head back to Charleston and keep them overnight,” Bledsoe said.
In the end, it didn't take long for Bledsoe to make up her mind. She headed back to Charleston.
“I have three roommates and I think they were more excited than I was,” Bledsoe said. “We were not sure if they were house trained or not, but they were and we played with them all night. They were so worn out, they slept the whole flight to Raleigh the next day.”
Becoming a Pilots for Paws volunteer was a way for Bledsoe to combine two of her passions — animals and flying.
“I’m a big animal lover,” she said. “It was an opportunity for me to give back and make my (flying) time worthwhile. I found the organization’s website, got active and signed up for flights. It’s the most rewarding thing to see an animal waiting for you at the airport. You are able to pick them up and transport them to their new home.”
Bledsoe, whose father Mark was a pilot for American Airlines, grew up around airplanes.
“We’d always go to the big events, all the big air shows, so I was used to seeing the world from a plane,” said Bledsoe, who is from Chicago. “I’ve been drawn to the skies and being in the air for as long as I can remember.”
The call of the wild blue yonder intensified when she left home for college.
“There was always this voice in the back of my head that was going, ‘What if you want to fly,’” she said. “I really didn’t start listening to it until I got to Charleston my freshman year.”
She went home at Christmas break and announced to her parents over dinner one night that she wanted to become a pilot.
Her father was thrilled.
“I think my dad gave me his old study books that night and I went to work,” Bledsoe said.
To obtain a private pilot’s license she had to pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s written test. Bledsoe said she spent hours studying for the FAA test at a downtown coffee shop when she could break away from classwork.
“I knew I’d made the right decision when I realized that I looked forward to studying and learning everything I could about flying,” Bledsoe said.
After acing the written part of the test, she had to log 40 hours of flight time to get her license. Bledsoe did that during a two-month span that didn’t leave much time for a personal life.
“It was wake up, go fly, come home and study,” she said. “It’s definitely hard to balance school, flying, a job and the team. It’s all about making it work and time management.”
Between classes and a part-time job, Bledsoe also excelled at equestrian and was one of the Cougars' top riders this past season. She was one of two members of the equestrian team to compete at the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association Zone.
“Sam’s passion for flying took me off guard originally,” said College of Charleston head equestrian coach Natasha V. McCarthy. “I didn’t realize she was so fearless. Every time she goes up in the air, she has a sense of excitement almost like she has in the saddle with the horses. I was wowed that she can go up there on her own and she gets such a sense of thrill. It’s really cool.”
Bledsoe will graduate with a degree in exercise science in December and her ultimate goal is to join the Air Force and fly C-17s. She’s already familiar with the aircraft, having volunteered at Joint Base Charleston, which is home of the 628th Air Base Wing and Air Mobility Command.
“I was drawn to the military route and the incredible aircraft you get to fly,” Bledsoe said. “We have a family friend and she flies C-17s and she was telling me about the amazing missions and the crew you get to serve with. For me, it’s an opportunity to see the world, meet new people and serve my country. It’s incredible and it’s the life I want to live.”