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Flying fellow students, Bruin Aviation president shows the sky’s the limit

Second-year economics student Vedant Bhargava pilots a plane over Santa Monica. Bhargava said he has taken trips to locations all across Southern California. (Megan Cai/Assistant Photo editor)

By Shaanth Kodialam

Feb. 26, 2023 11:08 p.m.

Stepping onto the tarmac at Santa Monica Flyers, Vedant Bhargava always reminds himself to go back to the same checklist – a mindset he calls “airplane mode.”

The second-year economics student completes a laundry list of pre-flight checks before takeoff in a four-seat, single-engine airplane, including some for weather, passenger safety, fuel, and other flight technologies and conditions. But it’s all worth the wait, he said.

“You’re in a flow, and once you take off, you leave all of your stress and all of the people down below you,” he said. “It just feels liberating.”

Bhargava sometimes takes Bruins up in the sky for flights like these as a part of Bruin Aviation, a student club he co-founded during fall quarter. Passengers depart from the Santa Monica Airport, which lies at about a 15-minute drive away from UCLA, soaring over the nearby coastline, cities and ocean. Flights are operated privately, meaning they don’t fly into jet terminals like traditional commercial planes, said Bhargava, also the club’s president. He said the organization came about after he noticed a lack of spaces for students interested in aviation and flying planes at UCLA.

“I’m an international student. I came here … and I was like, ‘Yeah, there’s aviation. It’s a massive thing here.’ And we are in LA. LA has a ton of airports,” Bhargava said. “I was really shocked when UCLA didn’t have anything.”

Bhargava grew up fascinated with flights coming in and out of his hometown, passing over the water in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory. As a kid, he owned toy planes and later played with flight simulators. Prior to college, his father told him he could pursue his aviation training as long as he passed his school exams, he said, and he hasn’t looked back ever since.

After a couple of years of training on and off, Bhargava said he flew his first solo flight in June 2021. A year later, he said, he had passed the written and in-flight tests necessary to obtain his private pilot’s license.

Bhargava said most Bruins he’s taken for a lift are filled with excitement by the time they reach cruising altitude. While the experience might come across as seamless and easy, he said it’s because he has taken serious steps to ensure everyone’s safety. He’s now working to obtain a more advanced permit that will allow him to fly through clouds and harsher conditions.

When first-year political science student Megan Barfian caught wind of her friend taking a flight with Bhargava, she said she immediately knew she wanted to see it for herself. She said the process of safety checks and pre-flight maintenance before getting into the sky was thorough, which made her appreciate the many safety measures pilots take.

(Megan Cai/Assistant Photo editor)
The sun sets in the distance as seen on Bhargava's flight. Bhargava said his focus is currently on expanding Bruin Aviation by inviting guest speakers and planning potential trips to air control towers. (Megan Cai/Assistant Photo editor)

Barfian’s trip through the air went along a 20-mile radius from Santa Monica Airport. She said she saw the largest IKEA in North America from up in the air, passing over the Burbank store with the sunset shimmering in the background and music from her AirPods playing in her ears.

“It was obviously gorgeous. All the lights on, the sun was setting. It was a really picturesque moment,” Barfian said. “It feels like a really cool roller coaster ride.”

She also said she was impressed with how smooth the landing was, adding that it was surprising to see college students capable of juggling the difficulties of flying a plane.

Though he is the main club member flying non-pilots, Bhargava said there are a handful of other club members actively training to advance their pilot careers as well. The club remains open to anyone remotely interested in aviation, he added.

The club now has just over 40 members, many of whom are interested in learning more about the field of aviation, Bhargava said. That includes weekly meetings discussing aviation theory, such as map terminology, but also broader dialogue about more recent events in aviation news, he said.

(Megan Cai/Assistant Photo editor)
The Malibu coast is pictured through the plane window. Bhargava said in the future he hopes to fly to San Diego International Airport. (Megan Cai/Assistant Photo editor)

Members, particularly those who are interested in becoming pilots, also review complex topics like aviation regulations and trainings, said Rahul Chander, the club’s vice president and co-founder. Chander is also training to get his private pilot’s license and said he has joined Bhargava’s flights many times to get a better understanding of his training.

“You get to sort of practically see what’s been talked about in the videos and the lessons,” Chander said. “My instructor was shocked at how much we managed to learn just because we were going flying with other members of the club.”

Chander said students who are afraid of flying should consider the scenarios trained pilots often use to practice. Though aviation does have its risks, he said trainings take into account a variety of things that could go wrong, such as engine failure. Club members often drop a message in their Slack group chat when a plane has a spare seat, he said, adding that someone’s first time flying can be a life-changing experience.

As for the overall organization, Bhargava said he plans to focus on expanding the club, particularly through a variety of new opportunities such as inviting guest speakers, visiting air traffic control centers, and organizing collaborations on social media. His trips currently take him all across Southern California, including Santa Barbara, Palm Springs, Carlsbad in San Diego County and San Luis Obispo, he said.

“It’s just you, the airplane (and) air traffic control when you’re talking to them,” he said. “You employ a completely different set of skills which (you) are never going to be using from your day-to-day life. … You feel peaceful.”

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Shaanth Kodialam | Features and student life editor
Kodialam is the 2022-2023 features and student life editor. They were previously a News reporter for national news and higher education and features and student life. They are a second-year communication and geography student.
Kodialam is the 2022-2023 features and student life editor. They were previously a News reporter for national news and higher education and features and student life. They are a second-year communication and geography student.
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