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Blind Student Takes Flight, Showcases Fullerton Airport
Shelley Alongi and Pilot Boom Powell
Shelley Alongi with one of the pilots who use Fullerton Airport, Boom Powell
Graduate student's interest in flying sparks oral history project about municipal airport

Story by Mimi Ko Cruz
March 6, 2006

When Shelley Alongi is flying in a small plane, listening to the rapid propeller clicking and radio chatter, her view is clear: She sees tranquil meadows, mountains and streams that soothe her mind.

The 39-year-old grad student is blind and can't fly a Cessna 172 by herself, but that doesn't stop her from climbing aboard. She loves the feeling she gets when she's flying. She even founded Titan Visual Flight Rules, a student club that she heads as president.

"Flying relaxes me" Alongi said. "I think people need to do things that make them relax because we're all just too tense. We're rushing from our cradles to our graves and don't have time to enjoy life."

Her fondness for flying was born out of curiosity.

In 2001, a small airplane made an emergency landing at Troy High School, four blocks from Alongi's Fullerton apartment.

"It was 5:55 in the morning when I heard this siren and all these helicopters" she said. "The noise was really close so I turned the radio on KNX and the traffic report mentioned that a small plane landed on the baseball field at Troy High School."

The report also mentioned the pilot's name, Dale Ploung, and Alongi immediately began a search for him online. Her computer is voice activated and can translate written words to sound. Alongi said she sent Ploung e-mail, congratulating him on the safe landing. He replied, giving her more details about the incident using lots of technical jargon that prompted Alongi to do some research.

The research fueled her interest in small planes and she found her way to Fullerton Municipal Airport, where she learned even more. It was there that she met flight instructors who took her on flights over the years. Now, she wants everyone else to learn about the 78-year-old municipal airport.

Alongi organized a celebratory program March 8 at the Titan Student Union. The program included a photo exhibit, dinner and reminiscences of the airport by the Fullerton 99s, a female pilots association. The exhibit also included a documentary film, featuring interviews that Alongi conducted with airport authorities and pilots.

"A lot of people don't even know Fullerton has an airport," she said. "I want people to learn that the airport is here and that it is providing vital services. For example, the CHP and Orange County Fire Authority do air operations from here."

Alongi plans to expand her documentary with additional interviews of people connected to the airport. The project eventually will be archived with the university's Center for Oral and Public History.

"In spite of being imaged through tightly manageable stereotypes, both municipal airports like the one in Fullerton and disabled students, such as Shelley Alongi, are alike in being tremendous community resources" said Art Hansen, emeritus professor of history and center director. "Both are challenged by their apparent limitations, but both work resourcefully and tirelessly to service the unmet needs of the community. Without the existence of either of these resources, the community of Fullerton would be a far less rich place to live and to work.  Shelley has never mentioned this point, but I think her vision for this project was rooted in the conjunction she sensed between an institution and herself in terms of both going that extra mile to make a difference."

Alongi lost her sight at the age of 2 to cancer of the retina and removal of her optic nerves. Being blind, however, does not impair her goals: "I see myself writing books and owning a restaurant in an airport" said Alongi, who earned her bachelor of arts degree in music in 1995.

She's already written scores of short stories that have been posted on the website Many of her stories are about pilots and weave in descriptions on flying techniques. Her research on planes and flying has helped Alongi make her stories "more realistic" she said.

Another project she wants to launch is a video with a series of landscape shots taken from above and set to soft music. The video would reflect what she "sees" when she is flying in a small plane.

"It's just relaxing" she said. "I've learned to relax through flying and that has taught me what's important in life. For me, it's friends and God and family."


Media Contacts: Shelley Alongi, (714) 525-9632 or
Mimi Ko Cruz, Public Affairs,  657-278-7586 or

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