Three amazing female pilots break barriers

Photograph by Linda KC Reynolds

Other than at the Los Angeles County Air Show, nowhere in the world will you find four impressive Aeronautical History Panels which include: Out of the Black; The First Flight of the F-117 Nighthawk Stealth; Breaking Barriers: Women in Aviation; Free Falling from Space with Joe Kittinger; and Going Downtown — The Air War in Vietnam by people who were there, including Joe Kittinger and Dick Rutan.

Breaking Barriers included a discussion with retired Air Force Lt. Col. Kelly Latimer, Air Force combat test pilot, NASA test pilot and current Virgin Galactic pilot; Army Reserve Maj. Jennifer Housholder, Army combat helicopter pilot; and Kelli Grove, Delta Air Lines pilot. The panel was moderated by aviation historian Dana Kilanowski.

Latimer wanted to be an astronaut for as long as she can remember. Focused on her one goal, she researched and laid out a plan to pursue her dream. She discovered she needed to join the Air Force and become a test pilot first, and to do that, she needed a four year engineering degree.

“I put all those together so my career was always chasing that dream of being a NASA astronaut,” said Latimer.

That exact dream didn’t happen but it did set her up for a pretty amazing flying career.

Latimer was the first female research test pilot ever to join NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif., and she is now a test pilot for Virgin Galactic. “It is a round-about way but now I can help other people get into space.” She has also worked for Boeing and has accumulated more than 6,000 hours of military and civilian flight experience in more than 30 aircraft.

Housholder has always dreamed of being an astronaut and a fighter pilot. She joined ROTC in college and later became a lieutenant in the Air Force. Unfortunately, the Air Force told her she was too short to be a pilot.

“What are you talking about — I’m 5’10! It’s a good thing they didn’t do a psych evaluation on me!” said the petite Housholder.

Fulfilling her commitment to the Air Force, she worked three years as an engineer on the F-22 program at Edwards. “It was great and a lot of fun but I still had that passion to fly,” shared Housholder. She switched over to the California Army National Guard and later to the Army Reserves. “It turns out they have lower height standards, and are the only ones crazy enough to let me be a pilot.”

Her parents were happy she was getting out of the Air Force but not so happy she was going to join the Army, because they thought it was too dangerous. “Don’t worry, I’m going in the Guard, they haven’t deployed since Korea!” she assured them.

Shortly after 9/11 while she was in flight school, her commander called her and told her to get ready to deploy to Iraq after graduation. Her unit performed multiple types of missions to include casualty evacuation, battle field circulation (moving troops from one forward operating base to another), air assaults, hero missions (moving service members killed for transport home) and VIP missions. She said that her unit flew Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey as part of a USO tour to visit troops in Iraq.

In addition to being one of the combat pilots, she was an intelligence officer and had to study the enemy and brief other pilots on air threats. A few years later, she deployed with the Army Reserves to Kuwait in support of ARCENT’s mission. During this deployment, she became “deck landing qualified” and actually landed her Blackhawk helicopter on a Navy ship in the Persian Gulf.

“I never thought I would say this but I have a whole new respect for Navy pilots.”

Landing on a moving surface was not easy, especially at night with night vision goggles. It took both pilots and crew chiefs to safely land the aircraft. “It takes a whole team to fly. When my crew chief says something, I listen without hesitation.” Now Housholder is working to set up a new aviation brigade with the Reserves, in addition to flying with a MEDEVAC unit.

Grove, Delta Air Lines Pilot, remembers being inspired after watching Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise, with her girlfriends.

“I watched it at a friend’s house because I wasn’t allowed to watch it at home,” said Grove. The girls decided right then that they were going to be fighter pilots. None of the young girls had family members in the military or were associated with flying.

When Grove was around 13, she flew with her family from Seattle to Anaheim, Calif., to vacation at Disneyland. “I remember being in the airport and I loved the hustle, the people with their bags, I loved being in the clouds — that solidified it for me but then again, I still didn’t really know how to get there from here.”

While working as a bank teller during college, a friend told her about a job opening in Alaska, which required working in the cold and rain, throwing bags and loading cargo. “That actually sounded perfect!”

Grove was tired of only working a few hours and was ready to exchange high heels for sweatpants and a jump suit. She applied and was accepted to a fast-paced flight school in New Mexico right before 9/11. Most of the students were already pilots and she didn’t have a concept of aerodynamics. After five months she figured she was in the wrong school. “Maybe this isn’t for me after all,” so she packed up again and moved to Los Angeles and took private flying lessons at a municipal airport.

Training in Santa Monica six to seven days a week doing double lessons, she completed her private, instrument, commercial, CFI and Double I in six months.

Nobody was hiring flight instructors after 9-11 and her student loans were about due. Dreams of becoming a fighter pilot changed into becoming a commercial airline pilot.

Trying to make ends meet, she worked at the front desk in a flight office and a tanning salon. Eating the leftover food that was coming off the business jets and any leftover catering food, Grove started to think about moving back to Seattle. At that point, she met a handsome corporate pilot. He told her about a friend that had a flight school in Carlsbad who was looking for a flight instructor.

“Eventually I worked my way into the right seat of a business jet, then (piloted) for a wealthy family in a CJ2.” After 10 years of that she felt her knowledge had plateaued, so she took another job flying celebrities and athletes — and then she got a call from Delta. “I only had one month to prepare for the interview.” She studied day and night. “I quit drinking coffee a week before the interview because I wanted it to really kick in the morning I interviewed!” It took 15 years, but her dream became reality — she is now a Delta pilot.

The common denominator of these incredible women is that they had a plan. Even though their original dreams changed, pursuing them led to amazing careers and they never gave up. And, that handsome pilot that Grove met: They were married in 2014.