Such Great Heights

Meet the Katahdin Wings, an all-female group of pilots looking to increase women’s access to careers in aviation.

“It takes you a while to come down,” Dannielle Courchene says. I’ve just flown a plane for the first time, and she is right: my head is still in the clouds. We are standing on the solid ground of the Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport, but I am dizzy with the strange aftermath of adrenaline, still wondering at the expansive feeling of flight and the impossibly blue bounty of the October sky. “It puts you into a different headspace,” she adds, and I nod. She gives one of her frequent smiles in response (wide, friendly, and slightly mischievous).

I hadn’t intended to be steering a Cessna 172 Skyhawk in a loop over the November foliage. When I first scheduled a date to meet Courchene at the airport, I assumed she would be the one piloting the plane as I watched, but as I soon learned, Courchene’s enthusiasm isn’t just for the act of flying. The Air Force veteran is also eager to share the sport with other women. During takeoff, she seemed almost as giddy as I was. (Aside from the plunging fear of descent, what I’ll most remember from my first flight is hearing Courchene’s laugh echoing gleefully in my headset.) Later, I ask her why getting more women in the air is so important to her, and she replies, “I have also always had a passion for supporting women in our endeavors.” She joined the U.S. Air Force in 2006 in part because she “knew it was something women weren’t doing as often as men.” Now she splits her time between working at the Fryeburg Airport in airport operations, studying Pilot Technology through Vermont Technical College, and volunteering as the chairman of the Katahdin Wings. (The 31-year-old pilot is also fixing up a big white van to someday live in— but that’s a whole different kettle of adventurous fish.)

The Katahdin Wings is the Maine and New Hampshire chapter of the Ninety- Nines, an international organization that was founded in November of 1929 by a group of 99 female pilots. Inspired by founding member Amelia Earhart’s unprecedented rise to fame and her record-breaking career, the Ninety- Nines seeks to support and promote women in aviation and flying “for the fun of it,” as Earhart once famously said. The group has members from 44 different countries, from Australia to Russia. It runs the 99s Museum of Women Pilots in Oklahoma City, organizes annual races (including the Air Race Classic, which will finish in 2018 at the Fryeburg Airport—a first for Maine), and distributes information about the history of women in flight. But most importantly, the Ninety- Nines raises thousands of dollars annually through events like their flying treasure hunts and “poker runs” (a race that involves visiting five to seven checkpoints, at which each participant receives a playing card), which they distribute as scholarships to aspiring women pilots.

Lori Plourde, former chair of the Katahdin Wings, explains that there are several types of scholarships awarded by the Ninety-Nines, including a student scholarship (which gives up to $6,000 toward training) and the Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship (which pays for privately licensed pilots to gain advanced certification and hone their skills). “Our chapter also focuses a lot on Aviation Career Exploration camps,” Plourde says. These ACE camps inform teenage girls about various career paths within an industry where men greatly outnumber women. “We’re few and far between, worldwide,” Courchene explains. “Ninety-four percent of all pilots are male. We want more women to see themselves in this role.” Reaching young women is a good way to start. For many pilots, flight has been a lifelong dream, an inherent love, as Plourde puts it. “I was always drawn to it; I think it’s something people are born with. Some people look at you as though you have two heads when you say you want to fly, but others get it,” she says.

It was like that for Courchene, too. Over coffee, she relays one of her earliest memories. “I remember climbing up to the tippy-top of the stairs as a three-year-old and listening to my mom yelling, ‘Get down from there,’” she says. “I’m an air sign, an Aquarius. I’ve always liked living on the edge.” As a child, she used to love watching the balloon rallies in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, where she lived. “I always thought they were so dreamy,” she says. “That helped spark my passion.”

But flying is more than just a dreamy headspace; it’s also about overcoming challenges. “From what I hear, you’re always a student pilot,” Courcherne tells me, “because there is always something new to learn.” She’s currently working to get her instrument rating, which will allow her to fly directly through clouds and other bad weather. (Ratings are add-ons to the standard private pilot or commercial license that allow the pilot to use various pieces of equipment or a different class of craft, like a glider or helicopter.) “It takes time and commitment to become a pilot,” Courchene says. “There are checklists for everything. You have to understand certain principles, like Bernoulli’s principle or Newton’s laws. You have to know the various components of the airplane and how they work, as well as understand the engine.” After enough study, the payoff is significant. “You ultimately learn to become one with the airplane,” she says.

Like a good long run or an open-water swim, flying provides some muchneeded perspective. “It requires your full concentration,” Plourde says. When you’re in the air, she explains, you need to be looking out for other air traffic, holding your altitude, checking your course, and watching the weather. “You can’t sit there and worry about someone’s snarky comment on Facebook,” she says. For Courchene, flying has also helped connect her to a new network of women. The aviation community in Maine is small, but both Plourde and Courchene say that it’s wildly supportive—uplifting, even. “Flying gives you this sense of, ‘If I can do this, I can do anything,’” Courchene says. “It gives you butterflies.”