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Taking Flight, Conquering Fears

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Tom Brahms

In the face of danger, the “fight or flight” response tells us whether to fight the fear or to flee the situation.

But graduate student Xavier Henry confronted a fear and took flight. Henry is now a doctoral student in engineering and aviation sciences, as well as natural sciences, at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES), but his passion for aviation blossomed from a childhood fear.


“As a kid, I was actually pretty terrified of flying,” he said. “I knew I was very fascinated by it, but the thought of how it worked was kind of scary to me.”


Eventually, Henry decided that there was no point in being afraid of something that people did every single day.


“I was going to conquer my fear, and what better way to do it than to actually head in that direction?” he explained. “Going on that early childhood fascination in aviation, I decided I wanted to pursue this as a professional career.”


A citizen of Antigua and Barbuda, Henry began his research early in life, discovering what it would take to become a pilot. He identified the subjects he would need to study, and says this schoolwork played a role in getting him to where he is today.


“I was always really interested in the sciences, and math, and social studies. As I got into high school, it was more chemistry, biology, physics, and I really loved geography ... [and] looking at human behavior and what motivates people to do certain things,” he said.


Soon he enrolled in the bachelor’s degree program in aviation sciences at UMES before continuing on to graduate studies. Henry now flies as a licensed pilot. This step has allowed him to help his doctoral adviser with interdisciplinary research on remote sensing technology. During his coursework, Henry has been able to fly for his adviser’s research team and operate some of their cameras and remote sensing equipment.


Generally, remote sensing activities involve collecting data about objects or the earth’s phenomena without making contact with the objects involved. Radar is one example of remote sensing. Such a system could be used in a ship, for instance, to detect obstacles by sending radio waves or microwaves to bounce off landmarks or other ships.


Henry’s work with his adviser led to collaborations with NASA employees who were also working on remote sensing technologies.


“It [aviation] is not just about flying commercially,” Henry said about this experience. “There’s a plethora of other opportunities that will involve flying, that go beyond taking passengers here to there. Scientific research is one of those areas.”


Henry said that reaching these new career heights took some focus along the way. For him, prioritizing helped. He said each week he would identify what work needed to be done and what free-time activities would give him “a sense of joy or peace or some kind of relaxation.”


“There are a lot of distractions,” he said. “You just make a list. ... Eventually it will come naturally and you’ll just get into a pattern where things just work.”


Looking back, Henry said there was only one thing he would’ve done differently.


“[I would have met] more people that were in the industry at that time, especially knowing what I know now. It’s all about networking,” he explained. “It might sound a little daunting for somebody in high school, but ... just find somebody that can mentor you that’s in the field that you’re interested in.”


Henry said he was still glad he chose to conquer his fear of flight.


“It [aviation] is one of those dynamic fields that’s always changing,” he said. “If I had to do it again, I would do it again because it’s just something that’s really dynamic. And it’s never boring.”


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