Pioneering fighter pilot Stacey Cotton Bonasso inspires the next generation as a high school STEM teacher.
Stacey Cotton Bonasso’90 was used to hard work and busy days. At WPI, she balanced aerospace engineering classes with multiple sports and early morning ROTC training. Commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force after graduation, she fulfilled her duties while earning a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University. As an engineer with the Air Force, she took on extra assignments, joining missions to test new technology on flights across the Caribbean and Europe.
But fighter pilot training was something else entirely.
“It was grueling,” Bonasso remembers. “It was a firehose of information, so much memorization. When we got there—this is before anybody had laptops—they gave us our books, and the pile I got was about that tall.” She reaches one hand a foot over her head and laughs. “And that was just for one airplane.”
The yearlong training, which she completed at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, involved 12-hour days, which sometimes started at 3:30 a.m. Evenings were spent studying before catching what sleep she could.
“It was definitely the most exhausted I’ve ever been,” she says. What kept her going? Her faith, she says. And the conviction that she couldn’t let down the people who believed in her—including the only other woman in her class, who had Bonasso’s back at a time when female pilots were not always welcomed by their male peers. But there’s also something in Bonasso that wouldn’t let her give up, no matter the odds.
“I just wasn’t going to quit,” she says. “I was determined to get through it, whatever it took.”
That grit has always served Bonasso well, from WPI to pilot training to her time as one of first female fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force. Now, as a high school teacher and mother of five, she hopes to instill that determination in the next generation, too.
Setting Her Mind to It
When Bonasso arrived at WPI in 1986, she had dreams of becoming an astronaut. That was her father’s idea, actually. A U.S. Navy veteran who made a solid living as a plumber in the southeastern Massachusetts town of Norton, he hadn’t gone to college himself. But he believed that his smart, tough daughter, who loved science and math—and was “a bit of a daredevil,” Bonasso adds with a laugh—could do whatever she set her mind to.
“He had been a radar operator, and he would tell me stories about the Navy,” she says. “I was fascinated. So, one day when I was around 12, he was like, ‘I think you might make a good astronaut.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, you know what? That sounds incredible!’”
When it came time to apply for college, Bonasso sought options that would fulfill her interests in science, math, and military service. She was accepted into the U.S. Air Force Academy, but going to school more than 2,000 miles from home seemed a daunting prospect. “It was such an honor,” she says. “But I think at the end of the day, I just wasn’t quite ready to be that far away from my family.”
Mulling over her options, she realized WPI offered the perfect solution. It was close to home, with a respected engineering program, and by participating in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps), which offered a generous scholarship to boot, she could still graduate as a commissioned Air Force officer. “It was the best of both worlds, and I totally do not regret my decision,” Bonasso says. “I think it really molded me, in many ways, into who I am now.”
Academically, she thrived in Worcester. Her classes were small—as few as 10 students at the upper levels—and the professors were approachable and supportive.
“Of course, everyone knows Van A, right?” she says, remembering beloved WPI fixture Professor John van Alstyne, who taught math for 30 years, served as dean of academic advising, and helped create the WPI Plan. “He was a strong influence in my life because he was just such an encourager. Whenever I was unsure of what to do academically or even with my future, I could go to him and just talk to him about it. He was somebody you could always talk to, even if you were just having a bad day.”
In addition to attending many of her volleyball and basketball games, he would write her encouraging letters, she added. “He called me ‘Supercale.’ He gave me so much belief in my ability to achieve great things.”
That didn’t mean it was easy, though—and there were times that Bonasso’s seemingly boundless energy was challenged.
“All four years, I did volleyball and basketball,” she remembers. “But one year, the track coach asked that, because I was a volleyball player and I could jump pretty well, would I come out and do the high jump. I don’t really like track, but I thought, I’m just jumping. I could do that. I started practicing, and then, of course, my first track meet rolls around, and the coach is like, ‘We don’t have anybody to do the 400.’”
That distance is widely acknowledged as the hardest race in track, Bonasso says, but, somehow, she found herself running it. “That one I’ll never forget. I got done and I threw up,” she says. “It was that kind of race!”
Meanwhile, she had ROTC obligations, including weekly Leadership Lab, which required full uniform, and early morning physical training. “I’ve got academics all day, basketball practice, maybe a game,” she says. “I come home, do my homework, get up at 5:30 a.m. to go run for ROTC. It was kind of brutal sometimes.”
Patti Newcomer-Small ’90, who lived with Bonasso their sophomore, junior, and senior years, remembers that Bonasso could seldom be found home.
“She and I were just talking about that,” Newcomer-Small says. “So senior year she says, ‘I’m going to get a cat.’ And the rest of us were all like, ‘No, no, you’re not having a cat, because that will become our cat and we don’t want a cat!’ She wasn’t trying to be inconsiderate—it was more that she just thought, ‘I can do anything.’ She was driven.”
Bonasso did back down from the cat idea, but she stuck with her overcrowded schedule, managing to get top grades even as she stood out on the court and in ROTC. The sense of comradery, and of being part of something bigger, made it all worthwhile, she says. And it was good preparation for the next phase of her life.
The Call of the Cockpit
A well-trained engineer, Bonasso knew the ins and outs of aeronautics. But it wasn’t until a summer internship at Edwards Air Force Base in California that she felt called to the cockpit.
Midway through her master’s degree at Stanford, she was assigned to investigate control issues on the Grumman X-29, an unusual experimental aircraft with forward-swept wings. Edwards was also home to the Air Force Test Pilot School and an engineer was needed to troubleshoot a software issue. Called in to help, Bonasso got to know some of the officers there—and realized something about herself. “As much as I enjoyed engineering, I did not enjoy being behind a computer all day,” she says. “It just wasn’t me. I needed to be out there doing.”
The Air Force, on the other hand, needed her engineering skills, so flight school had to be deferred. Meanwhile, she sought every opportunity to leave the ground, including joining experimental missions to test radar systems in the Caribbean and a classified project that involved daily flights across Europe.
We flew over the Swiss Alps every day, and then we’d circle over the Adriatic—it was pretty wild.
“We flew over the Swiss Alps every day, and then we’d circle over the Adriatic—it was pretty wild.” Bonasso says.
Finally, in 1994, she got the chance at her own plane. Only a year after U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin issued his historic order allowing women to fly in combat, Bonasso was accepted to USAF flight training, one of just two women in her class. And while most of her classmates were welcoming, Bonasso was always conscious of being a pioneer.
“Most of the guys were great, but there were a couple who just didn’t want you there,” she says, remembering one instructor who was “pretty bigoted,” boasting that he would never rate a woman high enough to earn a fighter. “My girlfriend and I did have to bring that to the attention of the main commander because that was going to directly impact what happened to us after,” she says. “Fortunately, the leadership was awesome. They were really upset, very apologetic to me and the other girl, because it was just not right.”
It boosted Bonasso’s confidence to know that the brass had her back, and she earned her pilot’s wings in 1995, along with two Top Gun awards, for aviation and formation flying. Although she qualified to fly fighter jets, a medical issue forced her to take an interim job as a public relations director at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona. Once she was cleared to fly again, she took the controls of the F-16 and never looked back.
“Some of my favorite memories were flying over the mountains of Utah at low level,” Bonasso says, noting that “low level” for fighter pilots is just 500 feet above the ground. Her missions, most often over the western United States, involved flying in close formation on training runs, dropping test bombs over salt flats, and speeding through canyons and mountain ranges, all at up to 500 miles an hour.
“That was pretty epic! And those were some of my best memories, just being able to see that beautiful nature around you, and you’re flying this machine that’s so powerful.”
Her life was about to change again, though. During her stint at Test Pilot School, she had met and fallen in love with a test pilot named Vince Bonasso. In 2001, the two married, and soon the F-16 pilot was expecting her first child.
“I would say that that maybe the F-16 community didn’t quite know what to make of it,” she says with a laugh. “They hadn’t had very many pregnant pilots before. I may have been the first!”
For her health and the baby’s, she had to be grounded, but she got back in the air as soon as she could, this time as an instructor for the T-38 Talon, a supersonic two-seater. It was then that she realized how much she enjoyed teaching.
“I loved seeing students get a concept that they hadn’t previously understood,” she says. “If they hadn’t been able to land well, and then then they have a great landing—that was just very rewarding. That was probably my most favorite assignment in the Air Force.”
A Family Break
Before they were married, Vince Bonasso left the Air Force and took a job flying jumbo jets for FedEx, based at the shipping company’s headquarters in Memphis. The family—which would grow to include five children, including twins—lived for a time in Oklahoma, where Stacey was stationed at Vance Air Force Base.
“I was flying, it was great, but he was gone so much because of the commute,” she says. “I had had my third child at that point, and it was just getting really physically demanding for me, and I didn’t have family there. We knew I probably couldn’t do this much longer and maintain my health. We moved to Memphis and I stopped flying, but it was hard. Columbus Air Force Base (where I did my pilot training) is about two and a half hours from Memphis, and I did consider transitioning to that unit. But at the end of the day, I wanted to be with my kids.”
Bonasso stayed in the Air Force Reserve, but her main focus for the next decade would be her children, who now range in age from 11 to 21. Despite missing the cockpit, five years ago she found a way to instill her love of science, math, and flying in the next generation by teaching aerospace engineering at a local Christian school.
“There’s a lot to be said for trying to encourage somebody in a positive way to achieve their goals, to better society, to be a good citizen—I like doing that,” she says.
There’s a lot to be said for trying to encourage somebody in a positive way to achieve their goals, to better society, to be a good citizen—I like doing that.
Her engineering curriculum also cuts no corners. The school has its own wind tunnel, and Bonasso leads her classes in a project that involves using it to test a 3D-printed airfoil, the streamlined body that creates lift for aircraft. Another unit is geared toward students who might want to be pilots one day.
“That’s where I teach them a little bit about how to fly,” she says. “We have simulators, so I teach them about the basics of flight, about air traffic control, those sorts of things. And then we do a final unit on space, where I teach all about orbital mechanics and general space topics. So it’s really comprehensive—it really is aerospace.”
Bonasso doesn’t oversimplify things just because her students are in high school, and it’s gratifying to see them take to the challenging material. And occasionally a student—like the rising junior who confided that she wants to be an astronaut—reminds Bonasso of herself at that age. “I thought back to when I was 17 and I had so many principles,” she says. “I wanted to serve. I don’t meet a lot of other kids who talk like that, and I don’t expect them to. I was pretty intense.”
She laughs, imagining that determined teenager who knew she could do whatever she set her mind to. “Probably the number one thing I would say to my younger self,” Bonasso says, “is to just enjoy the ride a little more and not think so much about the future. I was so goal-oriented that sometimes I missed what was going on around me. Although I did enjoy it. I did!”
As WPI researchers—and alumni—introduce innovative robotic solutions into entirely new workplace environments, understanding how humans interact, appreciate, and accept these high-tech coworkers takes on greater significance.