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SCPD helicopter visits Wading River School

An impromptu career day at Wading River School got off to an unusual start Tuesday morning.

Students lined up on the back lawn of the school, their eyes watching the sky for the arrival of a Suffolk County Police Department helicopter.

As the single-engine aircraft touched down on the field, students jumped and cheered, welcoming two of their classmates moms: SCPD pilot Major Phaedra Musselman and Stony Brook flight paramedic Erin Carey. They were also joined by SCPD aviation officers John Bopp and Darrell Randolph.

“This type of thing doesn’t happen often,” said Principal Louis Parrinello, beaming as he snapped pictures of third, fourth and fifth graders taking turns exploring the aircraft. “It’s an incredible experience for the kids. It gives them a sense of the helpers in our community and something to strive for. Maybe this will inspire one of our students to become a pilot or a paramedic.”

Tuesday’s event gave students a rare glimpse inside the lives of the flight crew, who maintain bases at both Islip MacArthur airport and Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton. 

The aviation unit covers all of Suffolk County, from Montauk and Orient points to the Nassau County border at Route 110 and all surrounding waterways.

“It’s 24/7, 365 days a year,” Maj. Musselman explained. While the majority of calls they respond to are emergency and trauma related, other missions include search and rescue operations for missing people and even animals. Remember the Mastic bull incident in July?

“There are calls that are really bad, but at the end of the day you’re helping someone,” she said.

Maj. Musselman presents frequently at local police and EMS departments, but most enjoys interacting with students.

She’s often approached by girls at air shows and other school events, wide-eyed and wondering: can we fly planes too? She still keeps in touch with one of those students, a then-8-year-old named Rachel she met while presenting at a career day in Farmingdale who’s now pursuing aviation at Embry–Riddle Aeronautical University. “I still talk to her, I still talk to her mom and I’m going to go to her graduation. It’s amazing,” Maj. Musselman. “I didn’t realize how much of an impact it had. She had never seen a girl pilot.”

Maj. Musselman is living proof that girls can indeed fly.

She began her trailblazing military career in 1997 when she enlisted in the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and has earned many prestigious accolades over a 23-year career with the Air Force.

She broke barriers as the first female A-10 Thunderbolt II Crew Chief at the 111th Fighter Wing in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, but while she enjoyed working as an aircraft mechanic, she realized that she’d rather fly them.

After earning an undergraduate degree and her pilot’s license, she secured a spot as an Air Force pilot, first on fixed-wing aircrafts. She then became the first female Combat Search and Rescue helicopter pilot at the New York Air National Guard at the 106th Rescue Wing at Gabreski Airport, where she’s deployed several times to Afganistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and has received six Air Medals, two Aerial Achievement Medals, seven Combat Readiness Medals, a National Defense Medal, three Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal. 

Maj. Musselman was also awarded the Humanitarian Service Medal twice for her efforts to provide stateside support during hurricanes Ike, Gustav, Harvey and Maria.

She was honored by Legis. Al Krupski (D-Peconic) during Women Veterans Appreciation Day in June.

The Air Force motto is ‘These things we do that others may live,’ an ideal that continues to guide Maj. Musselman to this day, though she retired from the Air National Guard last year. She’s one of two female pilots in the SCPD aviation unit, which she joined in 2014.

“I love serving my country and I love serving my county,” she said. “It’s an honor to put the uniform on each day. And every day is different — it’s not like you ever get bored.”

Mr. Parrinello said he was honored to host Maj. Musselman and Ms. Carey at the school. “What an incredible example for our children,” he said. “These are the heroes of our communities and this could be life changing for children in a positive way.”