Ridgefield teen soaring toward a lifetime goal

Student has set her sights on becoming an aeronautical engineer in the U.S. Air Force, and she's working hard to make that happen

By Jacques Von Lunen, Columbian staff writer

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Many Clark County students have to put in volunteer hours during their junior and senior years.

Few of them put in 10 times as many as they're required to do.

Many teens go play outside in the summer. Few of them sign up for military-style survival training while school's out.

And a lot of kids dream of hurtling through the air in a small plane. Not too many have a chance to do so.

Shelby Rutherford did all of these things, and she seems bound to achieve much more.

The 17-year-old is determined to spend her life serving in the U.S. Air Force and has started the competitive application process to enter its officer's academy. En route to that dream, the Ridgefield girl volunteered more than 100 hours at Pearson Air Museum. Rutherford today travels to Vermont, where she will be one of a few girls among hordes of boys at Norwich University's Future Leader Camp.

Rutherford was at Ridgefield High School's volunteer fair in February. She already had a few projects in her sights for the mandatory 10 hours she needed to serve in her junior year. Then she came across Pearson's booth and crossed off the other choices in her mind.

Rutherford ended up putting in more than 100 hours at the museum. She helped keep the place clean, read to small children during a Saturday program and led tours.

While readying a hangar for a summer class at the air field, Rutherford met some of the pilots who keep planes next door. After they saw her enthusiasm for all things aeronautical, they took Rutherford into the air twice this spring.

Her supervisor was not surprised at the girl's determination and success as a volunteer.

"I could tell by her demeanor that she'd hit it out of the ballpark," said Laureano Mier, the museum director.

A family tradition

Rutherford wants to be an aeronautical engineer. She plans to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., after she graduates from high school next year.

Ideally, that training would result in a lifelong career with the Air Force, repairing planes or improving their designs to make them more efficient, Rutherford said.

"I just want to be as close to the planes as I possibly can," she said.

She wouldn't mind flying them, too — after all, how much closer can you get?

But becoming an engineer is her top priority. There is great demand for female aeronautical engineers in the service, she's been told.

And she thinks she'll love the work. Rutherford is a math and science buff. She took Advanced Placement calculus last year and loved the college-level class. And she has a mind for design and construction.

"I like building stuff," Rutherford said. "My dad taught me."

He was an aviation technician with the U.S. Marines in his younger years, she said. Her mother was in the U.S. Navy in her 20s.

But her greatest influence, the man who shaped her career decision, was Harry Benjamin, her grandfather.

"Grandpa graduated from the Air Force Academy," she said with a sad smile. "He was my best friend."

Benjamin died a couple of years ago. Rutherford is ready to follow in his footsteps, even if it's difficult. The academy accepts about 1,000 freshmen out of about 12,000 applicants each year, said John Van Winkle, an academy spokesman.

Rutherford has begun the application process. She asked for letters of recommendation from Washington's congressional delegation and has taken preliminary tests online.

And she's going to a strenuous summer camp to prepare for the leadership aspect of being an officer.

Gender gap

As she did last year, Rutherford is attending the Future Leader Camp in Vermont. The camp run by the private military college accepts 80 participants for each two-week camp, Rutherford said. Last year, about six of those 80 participants were girls. Only one young woman was an assistant instructor.

Rutherford doesn't know yet how many female participants will be at this year's camp. But she knows there'll be two female assistant instructors: Rutherford and a good friend she made last year.

Participants in the camp go through military-style drills: rappelling off cliffs, marching in steep country, learning how to find their way around unknown territory and battling with paint-ball guns.

All of this is done with a military bearing, without joking around.

"It's an acquired taste," Rutherford said. "It's definitely me."

The petite girl relished the competitive aspect and beat some of the stronger boys in the demanding activities last summer. She earned the respect of the males.

This summer, she'll lead them. As an assistant instructor, Rutherford will be assigned a group of 10 participants whom she will guide through the activities.

"I'll have to be a little intimidating and make sure they're not my best friends," the girl with the quick smile said. "I tend to be very loving to people. It will take some effort to be strict."

Then a grin sneaked across her face.

"I'm kind excited about it," she said.

Jacques Von Lunen: 360-735-4515; jacques.vonlunen@columbian.com; http://www.twitter.com/col_schools.