Alumni Spotlight: Lauren Puchalski, SMCS ’09
“I’m really grateful to myself for trying everything.”Lauren Puchalski, SMCS Class of ’09
One could say that Saint Mary’s alumni are everywhere, but here’s a new point to consider: Saint Mary’s 2009 graduate Lauren Puchalski might be 45,000 feet above you right now.
Lauren is a charter pilot, and she’s thriving in a career she’d at one time never even considered. Her path has been a study in self awareness, bravery and versatility – traits she must tap into as she adjusts to situations she encounters on the fly – and that will benefit her wherever she lands.
Lauren attended Saint Mary’s from first through eighth grades. She went on to Saint Gertrude for high school and then to Virginia Tech. Her college career started with a plan to be a dentist, and as such Lauren majored in human nutrition, foods and exercise.
IB Learning Never Stops
As a good International Baccalaureate Programme learner, Lauren was open-minded, curious and risk-taking. After working for almost seven years in a pharmacy during and prior to college and observing interactions between insurance companies and health care providers, she decided that she wanted to reconsider her career path.
However, the idea of the financial cost of switching gears and starting flight school created a lot of stress, Lauren said. She had come so far in her education thinking dentistry was her goal that changing course was an extremely difficult decision.
“The only thing I’d ever done with my life was go to school,” Lauren said, “so the gravity of this decision was huge!”
As the end of senior year approached, Lauren decided to apply for a job to be a flight attendant. Then she had an epiphany: Why don’t I just fly the plane?
“I went to the Blacksburg airport – I just showed up – and asked if there were any opportunities for me to take a flying lesson,” she said. “There was an instructor willing to take me up that afternoon, so I went flying that day when I finished up classes.
“I’m big into hiking and backpacking, and as we were flying that first time we saw the Appalachian Trail on the ridgeline below us,” Lauren said. “I knew a lot of the landmarks we were seeing.”
The instructor offered to keep flying if Lauren would continue to point out landmarks so he could learn them from the air, so she got to fly with him for more than two hours.
“I thought: This is the best office ever!” she said. “I was completely obsessed.”
She graduated from Virginia Tech and went straight to ATP flight school at the Richmond Airport. She got certifications to be a private pilot as well as a flight instructor, and then taught as a flight instructor at ATP and at the Chesterfield airport for two years.
Charting Her Future
Today Lauren is a charter pilot for a company called Martinair, based in Richmond. Martinair flies private charters and med-evac flights. Lauren pilots their Learjet and Beechjet aircrafts.
Lauren said the type of flying she does is different from being a pilot for an airline. Every day and every week are different.
She has to be within an hour’s reach of the airport unless she’s on vacation. Some weeks she might fly 30 hours, some weeks she’ll fly fewer. She’s director of training for her company so some weeks she’s allowed more time at her desk to administer that role, making sure all the company’s pilots are up to date on their training.
During one memorable job she flew clients to Montana and got to hang out there for five days till she flew them back to Richmond. Some days she flies from Richmond to Charlottesville to Dulles in D.C. to Philadelphia, all in one day.
She’s enjoyed flying over the Hudson River corridor in New York, turning around the Statue of Liberty. She’s also liked flying to the First Flight airport in Kitty Hawk, N.C., where the Wright Brothers made their historic flight. When she has clients who need to land there she can sometimes spend a day at the nearby beach till it’s time to return to Richmond.
How does one muster the bravery to seek a career that requires defying gravity on a daily basis?
Lauren said she doesn’t consider herself instinctively brave – though she’s always been an adventure seeker. She credits her parents with rearing her around lots of different vehicles: ATVs, boats and jet skis – so that she’s comfortable maneuvering machines.
She also said that flight school – and flying – are mentally and physically challenging.
“There’s so much training,” she said. “It’s intimidating. You think: can I do this? There are a lot of people who flunk out of flight school because they can’t do it, but I was always pretty good at school. This is what set me up to be so successful as a pilot.”
We weren’t born with wings so to learn to be a pilot, our brains have to tap into something we’ve never exercised before, Lauren said. Studying and preparing are how I overcame every hurdle.
Foundational Learning at SMCS
Lauren said that Saint Mary’s gave her a great foundation of study skills, community, confidence and integrity.
“I definitely think Saint Mary’s Catholic School set me up for success,” she said. “I graduated eighth grade with 35 kids who are still like my brothers and sisters. I really feel like I know exactly who I am and I am confident in my decision making. That comes a lot from the Saint Mary’s community.”
Lauren cited her teachers as being integral to her success, as well as the traditions set forth at Saint Mary’s. Mrs. Gigi Dyer, who retired in 2021, taught Lauren math at Saint Mary’s, and helped ensure that Lauren was well prepared – there’s a lot of math involved in aviation, Lauren said.
Likewise, Lauren credited Father Renninger and her SMCS teachers – particularly Mrs. Nan Laux – for teaching her valuable life lessons and to lead with integrity.
In her free time, Lauren loves to be outside – backpacking, camping, snowboarding. She played a lot of recreational sports growing up and still likes to be active. She loves music and general aviation, and really enjoyed her time as a flight instructor, she said.
What advice does Lauren have for the Saint Mary’s students of today?
“Work hard,” she said. “You’re setting yourself up for your future. I’ve never been mad at myself for investing time in my studies and in my career.
NOTE: This blog post was written and submitted by SMCS staff member, Jennifer Janus.