Into the wild blue yonder

Stephen Becker in the cockpit of a T 33 jet trainer following a training flight near Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 2015

Alumni Adventures

Into the wild blue yonder

By John Canale

When not scanning the stars, Stephen Becker finds his thrills doing aerobatic stunts in the clouds.

As an astrophysicist, Stephen Becker, MS ’74, PhD, has always been at home among the stars and the clouds. One day, flying his single engine Cessna C-177 over the desert, his skill as an aerobatic pilot saved his life.


He was flying with a partner southwest of Santa Fe, New Mexico, on November 9, 2008, when the engine failed above rough terrain.


“I had to do an emergency landing,” Becker said. “Because of my aerobatic training, I stayed calm. I knew if I made a mistake to correct it, but not over correct it. I found a dirt road and I put it down without a scratch.”


Becker is a Scientist Level 5 at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he has worked for nearly 40 years on top-secret classified projects on nuclear weapons and foreign intelligence. His skill as an aerobatic pilot allows him to break away from work and enjoy the skies as few can.


The native of Evanston, Illinois, doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t want to fly. His first flight came compliments of his grandmother as a 12th birthday gift. Soaring along the coast of Lake Michigan, he realized he wanted to pilot planes himself. The chance for lessons didn’t come for a number of years, and only then from a lucky break.


After earning his master’s degree in astronomy from Case Institute of Technology, Becker went on for his doctorate at the University of Illinois, which had an aviation institute.


“It was for undergrads who majored in aviation,” Becker explained. “But if they had open spaces, a graduate student could take the spot.”


His thesis advisor hated the idea and would not allow him to take flight classes. Fate intervened when the advisor was offered a sabbatical at the University of Hawaii.


“I took the two-semester class, got my license and have tried to fly as much ever since,” Becker said.


Soon, he sought bigger adventures. At airshows, he had often marveled at the ability of the aerobatic pilots and asked himself, “I wonder what it’s like to do that?”


In 1991, he began to find out. Becker enrolled in aerobatics courses at Santa
Fe Regional Airport near his home. He started with training on a high-powered prop plane and eventually elevated to jets. Among the maneuvers he’s executed are snap rolls, steep turns, loops and a knife’s edge, which is actually flying sideways.


“In a jet, it takes about three minutes to do a complete loop,” Becker said. “It’s 3,000 feet in radius. You actually do go through the whole thing with 3Gs on your chest. You feel like a truck ran over you.”


While being slammed with extreme forces, Becker said he must focus on remaining calm, keeping his wings stable and striving to “not freak out that you’re flying upside down. You almost become one with the plane.”


He once aspired to become an astro- naut and nearly saw that dream come true, too. In 1995, he was among 125 finalists selected for the NASA astronaut training program. He failed to make the final cut of 35 — but he has another idea.


Becker is hoping to take part in the Virgin Galactic suborbital flight.


“About 12 years ago, I put my deposit down for a seat on a flight,” he said. “That means I get the lifelong dream of actually being technically an astronaut.”


Meanwhile, he’ll find his adventures in the skies over Earth, flying upside down and sideways and, if necessary, landing on a desert road.


John Canale is a freelance writer in Greater Cleveland.


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Stephen Becker at 1 a.m. at the 80th parallel off the coast of Greenland — on a National Geographic Epic 80 cruise

“I had to do an emergency landing. Because of my aerobatic training, I stayed calm. I knew if I made a mistake to correct it, but not over correct it. I found a dirt road and I put it down without a scratch.”

— Stephen Becker


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