Today, January 29, is the 43rd Anniversary of the day the first female jet pilot was hired by a major U.S. airline. Her name is Emily Warner Howell and she paved the runway for every girl with her head in the clouds. Kala Loehrer of Milbank, who officially became a private pilot this past August, hopes to join that still-elite group.
In 1957, Emily Warner (Howell) was 18 and living in Denver, Colorado. She hoped to attend college, but there was one problem – no money- so she took a job as a salesclerk in a department store. Still, she had dreams and those dreams included going places. She decided to become an airline stewardess, but again, there was just one problem – she had never been on an airplane. Fortunately, for her and thousands of women after her, she didn’t let that stop her. She and a co-worker booked a flight to Gunnison, a small city about 200 miles from Denver. On the leg home, one of the crew invited Emily to check out the cockpit. She was smitten. The view from the side of the plane was amazing, but the view from the front was so sweepingly beautiful, it convinced her that was where she wanted to be. The pilot suggested she take some flight lessons and she replied, “Gee, can girls do that?”
Back on the ground in Denver, she started taking flying lessons for $13 a week – a big chunk of her $68 paycheck. She also secured a job as a receptionist at that same aviation company. She earned her pilot certifications and became a full-time flight instructor in three years. She flew a green Cessna 152 and found herself teaching a large number of military men, who went on to earn jobs piloting commercial jets. In 1967, she realized she had more hours and landings than most of those men and switched plans.
She sent applications and resumes, knocked on doors, and nearly camped out in the lobbies of the major airlines for six years. Finally, in 1973 Frontier granted her an interview. One of the questions during her meeting was “What will you wear?” She replied ” A pantsuit. Design it like a uniform and add some stripes.” Today, that uniform hangs in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, a reminder to all young women, with aspirations like Kala Loehrer.
Although four decades separate the two women, and Emily Warner Howell opened lots of doors, things are really not so different. Warner Howell not only was the first woman jet pilot working for a major carrier, she also became the first woman captain in 1976, the first woman to join the ALPA, the largest pilot union in the world, and the first leader of the first all-female Continental Airline flight crew. Still, today the ratio of female to male pilots remains low. There are about 600,000 pilots in the U.S., but only 6.61 percent, or about 40,000, are women.
Kala Loehrer plans to add one more name to the female side of the ledger. She experienced her epiphany amongst 10,000 airplanes at the biggest air show in the country. She regularly attended and enjoyed air shows with her family, but it was at AirVenture in Oshkosh, WI, that her love of flying emerged. On a whim, she jumped in a flight simulator for the first time and flew the plane perfectly with beautiful landings on two different approaches. Her dad, a licensed pilot since 1992, thought he would show her up, but instead crashed in embarrassment. Kala was told by the flight simulator operator she needed to become a pilot.
Kala, now a senior at Milbank High and the daughter of Dan and Shelly Loehrer, spent the next two years in intense and time-consuming classes getting her private pilot rating. “It got frustrating,” she said, “because I had to spend time flying and studying instead of being with my friends and family, but it’s all been worth the sacrifice.”
Soon after Kala realized she wanted to become a pilot, she attended an aerospace camp on the campus of the University of North Dakota. During that time, she put her goals in motion. She decided to become an airline pilot with a major U.S. airline and to obtain her Bachelor of Science degree from UND. “I just knew that was where I wanted to go,” she said.
Back home, Kala began taking flight lessons from an instructor at the Watertown Airport. She also started ground school at Lake Area Technical Institute. As a junior, she attended classes until 7 p.m. each evening, following a full day at MHS. She was one of 10 students to start the program and the only female.
It took about 40 hours to obtain her license. Plus, she had to undergo a medical exam and pass a three-part test. The test included a written exam, an oral exam, and a check ride. Kala earned a 90 percent on her written exam – 70% was needed to pass. She also spent three hours in an intense oral exam answering questions about everything from flying procedures to the parts of the airplane. “You have to have extensive mechanical knowledge,” she explained. “You have to understand the workings of the motor and the entire airplane inside and out. I didn’t like that part, but you just have to know everything.”
“Driving a car is a 2-D task,” she explained, “but flying an airplane is 3-D.” Besides using your right hand to control the power and your left hand to turn right or left (called banking), your feet are working to steer the plane and control the rudder (yaw motions). You also need to balance the weight of the plane and its passengers, and be aware of the amount of fuel it is burning, the weather conditions, and the procedures for a wide range of scenarios you might encounter. Emily Warner Howell did it with charts, but today, Kala and other pilots use iPads with special GPS and map programs to guide them.
Kala took her first solo flight on September 16, 2014, in a Cessna 172. “It was very scary,” she said. “And my landing was terrible.” That first flight was also terrifying for her parents. “We were so nervous, but very proud of her,” said her mom, Shelly. “Flying with her makes me just well up with tears of pride. She is so professional and makes it look so easy.”
Kala has flown over 90 hours with over 270 landings and to fulfill her training hours has landed in Sioux Falls, Huron, Aberdeen, Fargo, Minneapolis, and Marshall, MN. She spends most of her time in the Cessna, but has also flown a Citabria Taildragger, a Skyhawk, a Schweizer, and a motor glider. She does not own her own plane, but has aspirations of buying one some day. “They are quite expensive,” said her dad, Dan, “ and on top of the plane purchase, you need a hanger, oil, fuel, insurance, and a lot of other expenses.” Back in 1960, a Cessna 172 cost about $9450 (or $75,580 in 2016 dollars). Today, a modern Cessna 172 sells for between $275,000 to $310,000. For now, and to maintain her hours to retain certification, Kala says she will continue to rent a plane out of Watertown – the same Cessna her dad was trained in 20 years ago.
When classes start next fall, Kala will be a semester ahead of most of her classmates as they will spend the first semester obtaining a private pilot’s license. She hopes to test out and skip ahead to advanced classes. It appears she is every bit as motivated as her predecessor, Emily Warner Howell, and well on her way to making her dreams come true. For Kala, the sky’s not the limit, it’s just the beginning.
Photos of Kala provided by VPD Studio in Milbank.