Class Notes Profile: Academics and Altitude

Sandra Miarecki teaches the physics of aerial dogfighting

“If you are higher or faster than your enemy, you’ll probably win the dogfight,” U.S. Airforce Academy Assistant Professor of Physics Sandra Miarecki explains to cadets in her class. (Image courtesy of Creative Services, United States Air Force Academy/Trevor Cokley)
Sandra Miarecki teaches the physics of aerial dogfighting

Sandra Miarecki, ’86 LAS, vividly remembers the moment she knew what she wanted to be. At age 4, while watching her family’s tiny black-and-white television, she saw astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin land on the moon. “I was absolutely fascinated,” she says. “That was actually the memory that carried me through the rest of my career.”

It’s been a career shaped by flight, physics and the military. At Illinois, Miarecki majored in astronomy, paying for her education with the help of scholarships, including one from the U.S. Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. In the Air Force, she entered Test Pilot School and got to fly in more than 30 different types of aircraft, ranging from fighter jets, such as the F-15 Eagle to the Goodyear Blimp.

Her goal was to be a fighter pilot, but in the late 1980s women weren’t allowed to fly combat missions. Instead, Miarecki trained to fly cargo planes and flew to destinations such as Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, England, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

In 2012, Miarecki retired from the Air Force and returned to school, earning her Ph.D. in physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Now an assistant professor of physics at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, she teaches a course on combat aviation physics, which examines the science behind dropping ordnance, using radar in combat and flying in a dogfight. In the latter, she teaches her class that energy management is the key to victory. “The kids keep [asking me for] a war story. I don’t have any, but I can tell them what I know, and they’re just rapt,” she says. “I love that I’m using my previous career and physics, and the kids are totally involved. They love it.”