Header image of Kristena Cook for Taking Flight story.

How three women pilots soar past sexism in the sky.

Written by Christine Fellingham | Photographed by Kylene White

Female pilot is not actually an oxymoron, but, statistically, it might as well be.

The numbers paint a picture of women firmly planted on terra firma while men soar skyward. In 2021, 93% of pilots were men and only 6% were women. The percentage of women pilots has hovered between 2 and 5% for more than a decade — increasing at an almost imperceptible rate of about a hundredth of a percent annually.

Image of Kentucky from above for Taking Flight story.

Director of Photography Kylene White recently joined Kristena Cook on a flight above Louisville.

While this reality may be shocking to the rest of us, it’s no surprise to women who have aspirations of a career in the pilot’s seat. Of the three interviewed for this story, not one dreamed of becoming a pilot as a young girl. “I remember seeing an old plane in the Smithsonian Museum on a family vacation and being fascinated,” says Tiffany Meredith, now in a training program with United Airlines. “I was always interested in planes and travel but never once did it occur to me that I could do that as a career. I had never seen a female pilot. You can’t dream it if you don’t see it.”

Each of the women featured here discovered their passion in unlikely ways and then followed even unlikelier, uncharted paths to gain access to the boys club in the clouds. Their ascents are proof of what women can accomplish against all odds when they refuse to be sidelined by the status quo.

Image of Tiffany Meredith for Taking Flight story.

Tiffany Meredith traded in her job on the night desk at The Courier Journal for a career as a pilot.

Growing up in Nelson County, Kentucky, Tiffany was fascinated by planes – whether they were the jets that flew over her home on the way to what was then Standiford Field or the miniature fighter planes on the GI Joe Aircraft Carrier that her brother carefully guarded against her curiosity. Even plastic planes, it seems, weren’t made for girls. 

“Planes meant freedom for me,” she says. “But I grew up in the 70s and 80s and certainly didn’t know or see any female pilots. As a girl from a small town, it didn’t seem like a possible path for me. I decided I would love it from afar.”

Her career began in another boy’s club of kinds — the newsroom. She worked at The Courier Journal for seven years – the last few of those as night desk editor where she managed breaking stories while the rest of us slept. But somewhere, in the back of her mind was an unwritten story of learning to fly. “I never completely moved on from it,” she says. “And there was another editor there who had a pilot’s license and we talked about flying all the time. He offered to take me up but eventually retired and we had never gotten around to it. But the idea and the interest was always there.”

One day, years after leaving The Courier Journal for a public relations job at the University of Louisville, she met a UPS pilot who happened to want to play polo – something she did as a hobby. The two arranged an exchange: She’d teach him to ride and swing a mallet and he’d take her up in a plane. That first thrilling flight led her to start scrambling and scraping her way into flight lessons and cockpits whenever and however she could. “It was crazy,” she says. “I’d never been in a small plane before and by the time we landed, I’m totally hooked. He said, ‘We’re going to get a log book and log your hours.’”

Getting the hours of flight time that go into earning the various levels of pilot’s licenses is an arduous, extremely expensive proposition.  “The gas is $8.79 a gallon and the plane I train in takes 56 gallons. Then you add another 100 bucks for an instructor …  and that’s 600 bucks without even leasing a plane,” Tiffany says.

“Flying taught me what I’m capable of. I want to be an inspiration to anyone who thinks that they can’t do something. We all sell ourselves short. Maybe we can’t get all the way to the end of a journey, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start.”

While trying to figure out how to finance her dream, she enrolled at a new ground school at Clark Regional Airport. “The guy who was starting it up was a retired Navy guy in his 80s who becomes pivotal in my story,” she says. “He told me, ‘I have one spot left in the class. Come on.’ It was me and a handful of other people off the street and thirty aircraft mechanics from Clark. It was basic ground training for pilots — everything you need to know on the ground to fly a plane — weather, FAA regulations, airspace. It was like drinking from a fire hose; the mechanics at least had an idea what an engine was.” 

When she completed the class, her seasoned instructor had a surprise proclamation. “He said, ‘Kid, come over here. What are you going to do with this? I think you should do it as a career,’” she says. “Then I told him I was 47 and he said, ‘Well, that is pretty old. But I still think you should do it.’” 

She enrolled in a flight school at Bowman Field and used her reporter skills to start researching scholarships or any ideas for funding this expensive next career move. “I found there was a pilot shortage and, obviously, a shortage of woman’s pilots and United Airlines was launching a new professional pilot training program called the United Aviate Academy. They’d take pilots and train them from day one. I never thought I’d get in. I kept my eye on it and I applied as soon as they opened applications. I was one of the first people to get in.” (They received thousands of applications and initially accepted a couple hundred.) 

Two years later, Tiffany is working toward her professional certifications, spending much of her time living and training in United’s training facility at a desert airport in Arizona. “It’s very rigorous. It’s all geared to training you to be a professional pilot,” she says. “United is really walking the walk.  They employ more women pilots than any other airline and they’re doing this to bring more women in.”

Taking to the skies for a new career has been a game-changer. “Flying has without a doubt changed my life,” she says. “Not only is it amazing to me that we, as humans, can create a machine that can fly through the air, but when you’re up there looking down at everything below you, it puts things in perspective. You see how big the world is and how much is out there. Sometimes we get so focused on what’s right in front of us that it’s hard to expand it out and see the big picture. I see it now.”

Image of Kristena Cook for Taking Flight story.

Kristena Cook is working on obtaining a commercial pilot license.

Her aha moment came after she jumped out of a plane. “Going skydiving had always been on my bucket list,” explains Kristena Cook. “And, magically, while visiting some friends on Oahu, I got my chance to do it.” And when the 32-year-old, recently divorced mother of two little girls landed back on the ground, everything had changed. “Suddenly, I knew that I wanted to be a pilot,” she says. “And by the time I got back to the mainland, a friend had connected me with an aviatrix in Kentucky. I made some calls to my transfer coordinator at JCTC … and the next thing I know I was enrolled in the flight program at EKU.”

The thought of putting on pilot’s epaulets had never even occurred to Kristena before. “I [have] had a zest for travel since I was a kid. As soon as I could drive, I was doing cross country trips,” she says. “But I grew up in poverty in the South End of Louisville. I had that poor mentality. The goal of making six figures and learning to fly just wasn’t there.”

But since that life-changing jump, Kristena has moved heaven and earth to earn her wings. She returned to college (having dropped out in 2006) at Eastern Kentucky University as a single mom to study aviation. Not everyone was supportive. “When I decided to enroll as a flight major at EKU, one of the professors there told me I was setting myself up for failure,” she says. He said there’s no way you can do this: raise kids, go to school, learn to fly, complete homework, and go to work. He told me I must be crazy.” She didn’t listen.

“I’m on the phone with this man and I’m telling him I will prove him wrong. I’m Black and I’m a woman and I’m a mom and I came dressed for success every day, had perfect attendance and a 4.o in every class he taught. By end of second semester he was writing recommendations to airlines for me.”

“There is no color in the sky. When I walk onto an airfield, I have to hold my head up high and I have to be prepared to face people who don’t think this is my reality. I will show them something different.”

She got a job with American as a customer service representative, hoping to get a corporate scholarship for flight training, “But those were for family members, not for employees … It’s like every corner I turned I just kept hearing how we can’t help you until you have these flight hours, but you can’t get the flight hours unless you pay for them, and being a customer service rep just doesn’t pay that much.” Through sheer will and overtime, Kristena somehow scraped together the money and time to get herself her private pilot’s license — driving a 100 miles to Richmond for lessons. “Logistically, it didn’t make sense. I drove to Richmond every day with fervor and zest for a new life. It was something I really wanted and was willing to make the effort,” she says. “My first flight was nothing short of incredible — literally beyond what words can describe. Learning basic maneuvers and putting into practice the principles of aerodynamics that I was studying in class made me feel like I was smart. I couldn’t wait to get home and tell my daughters whom at the time were 8 and 12 years old. Flying my kids around has brought me the most joy.”

While trying to find a path to a commercial license, she has shared the perks of working behind the desk at an airline with her girls. “Sometimes I bust a 16-hour day, then I’m off for five days and we take a flight to Hawaii for free. I’ve taken them to the pyramids,” she says. “My kids are really spoiled in some ways.” Even though money is tight: “Since my divorce, I tell them, we’re not poor, we’re broke. It’s different. Being poor is a state of mind. People who are poor transfer that mindset to the next generation and then their children are poor. I try to teach my kids to work hard for what they have and that if you work hard, the world is yours.”

Which is why Kristena recently made a tough decision in order to achieve her goal of gaining that illusive commercial license so she can one day fly 747s for UPS and put any broke days behind them. “One sacrifice I’ve made of late is that I’m switching up my parenting schedule with my former husband,” she says. “For the last 10 years I’ve had them full time. Now, I’m getting them only on the summer so I can work 40 to 60 hours a week to pay for flight time. It makes me cry thinking about it, but I’m without a choice. My ex lives in Los Angeles, which makes it even tougher. But I told them, ‘Hey, I want a brighter future for us, for generations to come’ and it makes sense to them. They say, ‘Mom, you’ve got to do the things you don’t want to get the things you want.’ ”

And she does — working and saving like crazy and inching closer to getting her instrument rating and commercial license, which are the next steps toward her goal. “I’ve flown every chance I get and as much as my budget allows,” she says. “Being a woman is tough, but being a Black woman is even tougher considering the statistics of professional pilots. I tell people I’m in flight school and their reply is, ‘Oh, to become a flight attendant?’ But my heart is in the sky and I will get there.”

Image of Stefanie Crask for Taking Flight story.

Stefanie Crask is a Black Hawk pilot for the National Guard.

She defies a lot of stereotypes besides the obvious one she crushes every time she slides into the cockpit of the official helicopter for the State of Kentucky to give VIPS and visiting dignitaries a ride. Stefanie Crask is a 36-year-old Black Hawk pilot for the National Guard who flew missions in Iraq and now flies for the state. Her personal runway was paved with bold life choices that propelled her into the clouds and a life she never imagined when she was growing up.

“My mother was a nurse, so I wanted to follow in her footsteps and have a career in medicine; I’m competitive, so my goal was to be a doctor or a surgeon,” she says. But while she was in college, she took a sales job to earn money for her expensive future degree and literally fell into a new career. 

“I was 19 years old and I was making tons of money doing this door to door sales job,” she says. “My mother told me not to do it. I was shy and terrified of upsetting people, but the earning potential was huge and I followed the program and was making $13,000 a summer.” So Stefanie did what any 19-year-old flush with fast cash could do and splurged on an impulse purchase: “I wanted to do something special for my sister for her 21st birthday, so I took her skydiving.” 

After the first jump, Stefanie was hooked.  So, instead of saving her money for med school, she spent most of it getting her skydiving license and buying her own rig. “I had always been fascinated by birds as a child and I could finally fly like a bird,” she says. But each fall to the earth took her farther from her original goal and, suddenly, the decision to move to Alaska on a whim with her best friend seemed like a better idea. “I had moved home and was working in a lab doing blood and urine samples when my friend suggested this idea.  I couldn’t decide what to do, so I started talking to the older women who worked there and one of them said, ‘All I know is don’t be sitting here when you’re 60-years-old saying I wish I had done that.”

Two weeks later, with $400 in her wallet, Stefanie drove across country to her new life in Alaska. “It was December 1. There was a ton of snow. I got two jobs the day I got there and moved in with my best friend. We were playing pool and I saw a guy with a skydiving shirt on and went over and talked to him. He gave me a job packing parachutes. So I’d jump and pack, jump and pack. I basically broke even, but I was so at peace and, one day, I landed and just said, ‘I’ve got to do this for a living.”

“Be self-assured in your abilities and never allow society to tell you what you ‘should be’ because of your gender. Never be afraid to voice your opinions or ideas. Learn to roll with the punches of male counterparts but don’t let them walk all over you. Stand up for yourself. Study hard, be better than them, and never give them a chance to question your capabilities.”

That’s when Stefanie began an even crazier journey of trying to become a professional pilot.  “I started asking everyone at the drop zone how to become a pilot and most of them suggested ‘Join the military. They’ll pay for it all,’ ” she says. “That’s when my search began for the branch I would join. I tried the Air Force first, but they were on a hiring freeze. The Coast Guard wanted me to have my private pilot license already. I didn’t consider the Marines or Navy because of being a female, so last up was the Army. I was hesitant to join active duty, in fear I might not be cut out for the military. I ended up choosing the Army National Guard. I told the recruiter I wanted to be a pilot, he suggested joining an aviation unit. Luckily there was one slot left, I joined as a Black Hawk mechanic/crew chief.” 

That was no guarantee of getting her wings. To get moved into flight school, she had to apply, take a written test, get recommendations, go before a selection board… get accepted. 

“I announced my intentions the moment I signed up. I started my packet right after graduating basic training and AIT (advanced individual training). I graduated top of my class in AIT. I started flight school exactly a year later. I also graduated top of my flight school class in June of 2014. I was the poster child for my recruiter.”

There was some turbulence along the way. “Being a female was my biggest obstacle. My opinion or input was always discredited, but if a man said the exact same thing 10 minutes later, it was the best idea anyone had ever heard,” she says. “I had to constantly prove myself worthy of being there, not only to the instructors but to other students as well, but man was it fun being the number one warrant officer in my class, out of active duty and National Guard.”

The first time she got to pilot a helicopter remains etched in her memory. “It was adrenaline pumping, nerve wracking, confusing and the most overwhelming experience of my life,” Stefanie says. “I had never felt so uncoordinated using all my limbs at once. But the excitement and determination I felt to master it was unlike anything I’d felt.” She had terrifying moments in the air as well: “Flying in Iraq, landing in the middle of a city full of bad guys, hearing my aircraft warning me of a possible threat on short final, with a high-density altitude, full of passengers and no ‘outs’  has quite the pucker factor effect,” she says. “But those missions in Iraq were also some of my proudest moments. Making a difference in soldiers’ lives, flying actual Black Hawks … It’s humbling.”

Now, in her new role as a civilian pilot for the state with an instructor’s license for small planes, she has set her sites on new adventures in the sky. “I want to get all of my instructor rankings for both fixed wing and helicopter. I also want to do an aerobatics course.” It seems likely that she will.

“Becoming a pilot has presented its fair number of challenges, but it forced me to become a stronger person than I thought was possible,” she says. “It has given me the greatest sense of accomplishment I could ever ask for. It has given me something to be proud of. It has given me a purpose and opened doors that I never could have imagined. Most importantly, it has given me a career path that fills my soul with joy.”