Whether Katie Kneeland is soaring through the lane on the basketball court or flying high over Long Island’s East End, the senior at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor manages to keep herself grounded — even with lofty goals.
Kneeland stars on the Pierson/Bridgehampton/Shelter Island girls basketball team, averaging 19.4 points per game in the regular season. The 17-year-old also has taken to the skies in pursuit of her private pilot’s license and has logged about 15 hours of flight time.
The sky is not necessarily the limit, though. She aspires to be an astronaut and said she was accepted to Purdue University College of Engineering, which offers degrees in aeronautical and mechanical engineering.
“We have a very adventurous theme in our family,” said Kneeland’s mother, Laura Grenning. “The truth is, Katie, when she was 3 years old, there were Barbies and makeup kits, but the things she desperately wanted were the jets. So, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll buy you the planes!’ ”
Kneeland’s grandfather, Edward M. Grenning, died five years before she was born, but Katie said she shares his fascination with the cosmos. She said her grandfather, a 1961 graduate of Columbia University with a degree in aerospace engineering, worked on planning and design for the Apollo moon mission while at Morton-Thiokol in Utah. He then worked for Bell Labs in Washington, D.C., from 1964-74.
He spent much of his career working in labs and writing essays predicting manned missions to Mars. Those explorations could happen in the 2030s, according to the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, though the goals weren’t realistic in Grenning’s time.
Katies' other grandfather, George J. Kneeland II, worked for PTC Aerospace in Connecticut and was involved in manufacturing the interiors of planes. Like her maternal grandfather, he died before she was born.
Stories of her grandfathers exposed Kneeland to a vast universe that extends beyond keeping two feet on the ground. Earning her pilot’s license is the first step, and then she’ll decide what’s next.
“It really depends on how far my career goes in engineering,” said Kneeland, whose dream is to be a mission specialist aboard a space shuttle, though she humbly recognizes the low odds of doing so. Should that not come to fruition, Kneeland said she plans to have a career in engineering with flying a hobby on the side.
“Whatever school I go to, I want to take lessons. Some people fall so in love with flying that they want to get their commercial license. I’m undecided on that right now.”
Kneeland is training to fly under Part 61 of the Federal Aviation Regulations, a path that requires 35 hours of flight, five hours of solo flight and three hours of night flight, among other benchmarks. There are also “ground requirements,” as Kneeland calls them, that can be done online.
Without a license, Kneeland said she’s not allowed to train in hazardous weather, including cloudy, icy, rainy or windy conditions.
Peter Boody, a 68-year-old freelance Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) for Sound Aircraft Flight Enterprises in East Hampton, said Kneeland already has displayed a knack for being in the cockpit.
“She’s impressive in how she handles the airplane,” Boody, of North Haven, said. “She’s got a real feel and an innate sense of how to fly the airplane, which is great to see and it’s fairly rare.”
Boody said Kneeland primarily trains in a Cessna 172, a single-engine, four-seat, fixed-wing plane made by the Cessna Aircraft Company that is common in the hobby. “It will typically cruise about 110-115 knots, or 125 mph,” Boody said.
There is no age requirement to begin taking flying lessons, and there’s no paperwork involved to begin. A prospective pilot must be 16 or older to fly solo, however. Kneeland said she knows of one other high school student who took only one lesson, but flying at that age is not too uncommon.
Mid-Island Air Service offers a program through Eastern Suffolk BOCES at Brookhaven Technical Center in Bellport in which roughly 60 high school juniors or seniors learn to fly in a two-year program.
Kneeland said a typical private lesson — which is an hour-and-a-half to two hours — can cost between $250-$400, depending on the amount of fuel consumed.
“We save our money for our more adventurous, fun things,” said Grenning, a single mom who said she drives a 2011 minivan because her priority is saving for life experiences. “We’re very frugal in areas where people might expect us to not be frugal. I have always preferred to emphasize an experience over something to consume.”
Kneeland spends much of her time away from the basketball court in the classroom — where she takes a rigorous course load of international baccalaureate classes and currently has a 99 unweighted GPA — or at East Hampton Airport, where she takes lessons and has a job each Sunday as a customer service representative and social media intern.
Her duties include answering phones, reviewing pilots’ invoices, calling in fuel orders and communicating with incoming pilots over the radio using aviation lingo.
“I learned the whole alphabet,” Kneeland said. “I can talk on the radio now. I can understand what everyone’s saying.”
As captain of the Pierson girls basketball team, Kneeland uses her on-court communication skills to guide the Whalers. She missed the first five games with a broken wrist but coached from the sideline, which gave her a different perspective of the game.
Kneeland's father, George Kneeland III, is the assistant coach on the Pierson girls basketball team and a fifth grade teacher in Sag Harbor. He said she has a mentality that can't be taught.
"I couldn’t ask for a better daughter," he said. "What I love about her, which I never had, is her mindset. She doesn’t fear fear. She has a lot of confidence."
Kneeland is five points away from reaching 1,000 for her career, Pierson coach Kevin Barron said, and it’s likely she’ll do so on Wednesday against Mattituck in a Suffolk small schools semifinal.
Barron said Kneeland’s interests are diverse — soccer and horseback riding are also hobbies — but said he was unaware of her flying lessons until it came up in casual conversation.
“As far as I knew, she was just working at the airport,” Barron said. “It doesn’t surprise me because of her potential. She’s an extremely intelligent girl.”
Barron lauded Kneeland’s leadership and knowledge of the game. He said her extracurriculars never conflict with her commitment to the team, which won Suffolk League VI and now has state-title goals.
Kneeland has Pierson soaring. Like her own personal goals, maybe even higher than the clouds.