Fly Like a Girl:

The high-flying women of Sandpoint

By Cameron Rasmusson
Reader Staff

If you want to compliment a pilot around here, you could do a lot worse than saying, “You fly like a girl.”

For a small airport community, we have a large number of women pilots and mechanics. Common among all of these women is not only the skill and love of flying, but a willingness to share with others and to pass along what they have learned. As someone who has trained with several of our women pilots and watched them excel, I am impressed and delighted to be a small part of this community.

Several of Sandpoint’s female aviators have taken the time to share their experiences with the community.

Tonya Rutan

Tanya Rutan laying on a float plane owned by Glenn Smith. Photo by Glenn Smith.

Tanya Rutan laying on a float plane owned by Glenn Smith. Photo by Glenn Smith.

I flew with my husband, Burt Rutan, for nearly 30 years without actually learning to fly. Why? Three reasons: Burt is an ace pilot; his airplanes are complex; and I have an intense fear of math.

It was my dear friend, the late Pamela Riddle-Bird of Sagle, who inspired me to finally slip into the left seat and take the controls three years ago. She introduced me to the largest village of fliers that I’ve ever met—men, women, children and household pets—who love to soar the skies of the Pacific Northwest. They are like ants, there are so many of them.

Thanks to them, all within the sister cities of Coeur d’Alene, Sandpoint and Spokane, I now have a private pilot’s license to fly seaplanes.  I’m currently learning to fly land planes.  I’ve learned to embrace the math.

Meriah D’Attilio

From the time I was very young, I had a passion for working with my hands and learning. These things play a vital role in the aviation industry and have helped me achieve what I have thus far. I started spending a lot of time working with my husband at Air-1 Sandpoint Helicopters and Maintenance, and it was there that I determined that this is what I am meant to do. I earned my airframe license in December 2014 and my powerplant license in June 2015.

With a lot of help from the Sandpoint aviation community, I have had the opportunity to expand my knowledge and deepen my love of aviation. With three years of maintenance experience, I look forward to learning all the things I have yet to throughout my career as a mechanic.

Sara Williams

Sara Williams (right) with a friend flying down in Florida. Courtesy photo.

Sara Williams (right) with a friend flying down in Florida. Courtesy photo.

After arriving home from my last trip overseas I came back puzzled on what my next move was, I kept coming back to the idea of travel, but didn’t know how I could possibly incorporate that into a successful career. That summer I was flying down to Arizona to visit family when I sat next to a corporate pilot. I ran off the plane with the idea of becoming a pilot.

From the first lesson I felt excited to study. I moved to Sandpoint, where I found a flight instructor finish up my private license. You should never let a day go by where you feel like you didn’t learn something, so the right instructor is very important.

When I got my job working at a composite float manufacturing company called Aerocet a little over a year ago, people wondered why I put myself into an assembly line at a factory. I kept telling my friends and family that “it was a foot in the door.” Shortly after my dreams came true, and I was recognized as a licensed pilot at the company. They offered me more flying opportunities in the aviation community. I think it’s safe to say, don’t ever be too cool to start from the bottom. Instead realize you have to start somewhere.

Anna Nystrom

I got my start in aviation earning a glider pilot license as a teenager. After high school, I became a commercial pilot and a got a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. Since than I have flown either as a commercial pilot (airline, air taxi, flight instructor) or worked as an aeronautical engineer, mainly a flight test engineer for, among others, Saab, Quest and Boeing.

I still work with airplanes. I like everything about them. I like figuring out how they work. I like pushing them around, climbing in and out of them and flying them. I like the high standards of work and conduct they require and the people they attract.

Maggie Kirscher

Ever since co-piloting an airplane in middle school, I’ve known what I wanted to do for a career. Luckily, as a junior at Sandpoint High School, I job-shadowed Ken Larson at the local airport. Before I knew it, I was taking lessons and earned my private license the summer after high school.

I am now flight instructing at Cochise College in Arizona and loving being able to help students achieve their goals, just like so many people like Ken who helped me achieve mine. I cannot wait to give back the city that helped me find my wings.

My ultimate dream is to be an aerobatic or missionary pilot.Hopefully I end up doing them both and so much more. The freedom of flight is something that I hope everyone is able to experience someday, and I am so thankful that it has gifted me the ability to live a life full of adventure and expanding horizons.

Paula Lee 

I got into flying from my dad, who worked as a commercial pilot for a small company in Minnesota, and I started ground school in high school. But after my dad passed away, I started a career and didn’t get my private pilot license until I was in my 50s.

My dad had an Ercoupe, white with burgundy wings and “Snoopy the Red Baron” painted on the side. My husband, Jan, and I finished the restoration of a similar plane, a1965 Aircoupe Alon A-2. Jan plans to fly the coupe to Oshkosh, Wis., with me as support crew carrying the camping gear in my plane. If all goes as planned, Sara Williams will fly with me as co-pilot in my 1966 Cessna 182J, called GG in honor of Glacier Girl.

Amber Phillips

Amber Phillips takes a high-flying selfie.

Amber Phillips takes a high-flying selfie.

“Why should the birds have all the fun?” That’s my motto. I have my private pilot certificate in airplane single engine land and sea and am working towards my tail wheel endorsement. A Federal Aviation Administration-certified air frame mechanic, I work full-time at Quest Aircraft leading a great team of 18 people who build over 500 various assemblies for the Kodiak aircraft. I’m also pursuing my powerplant (engine) rating certification, developing an aerospace program for local 4H clubs and an active member of the International Organization of Women Pilots called the Ninety-Nines.

I work with the North Idaho High School Aerospace Program to teach young people about aviation mechanics. It’s a way to give back and pay tribute to those who have taught me. I take pride in teaching students the importance of building an aircraft the correct way, how to use tools safely and to work cooperatively as a team.

Jennifer Brandenberger

Jennifer Brandenberg looks like she is having absolutely no fun at all. Courtesy photo.

Jennifer Brandenberg looks like she is having absolutely no fun at all. Courtesy photo.

My flying started when my son was learning to fly. I was at the airport a lot, and one day I found myself in the cockpit of an airplane. That day set me on this path that I’m on now. I’ve been lucky to have excellent instructors who inspired me to continue to set new aviation goals. I love the challenge and precision of flying, and learning about aviation is pure fun for me. Some days I think I’m flying to master the next skill, and other days I think I’m flying just for the joy of it.

I got licensed as a private pilot last October and recently completed instrument ground school. I’m currently working on my instrument rating, hopefully with the commercial license to follow. I’m looking forward to the aviation opportunities that might come my way after that.

Jacquie “Baby” Warda

I am honored to say I’ve played a very small roll in the success of these wonderful women of North Idaho. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of them, have taken a few of them flying in my Extra 300 and best of all, watched them soar to new levels of their aviation careers!  Ken Larson and friends have done an outstanding job getting these women the opportunities they need in order to succeed at their aviation careers.

Judith Kirkwood

It was 1970 when a charter pilot asked me, a 13-year-old, if I would like a right seat for a flight from Ft. Lauderdale to the Bahamas. Enjoying the flight and scenery, it occurred to me that this man was being paid to do this for a living. My mind was made up. It never crossed my mind that women weren’t being hired by the airlines or that it was then considered a man’s occupation.

I began flying lessons in 1986, an 8-year-old daughter in tow. Since then, I’ve worked as a certified flight instructor, chief flight instructor, designated pilot examiner and FAA aviation safety inspector. It’s been a fulfilling career of helping pilots achieve their goals, all the while smiling inside as we call this work.

Carly Orr

Carly Orr on her first solo flight. Courtesy photo.

Carly Orr on her first solo flight. Courtesy photo.

Is it possible for a person to be genetically coded to fly? My great-grandmother was a WASP in World War II, and I remember her stories and her encouragement for me to be whatever I want. She reminded me to not let any barriers stand in my way, and she somehow passed on to me the pilot gene. For that, I am indebted to her. Her son, my grandfather, who was an aircraft mechanic in the air force, recently gave me his mom’s first logbook. Looking through those entries brings to mind nearly unbelievable images of her flying a huge variety of military planes, doing her part during the war. Fantastic!

Since I was 8 years old, standing at my great-grandmother’s knee, I have had one burning desire – to fly helicopters. I am currently a senior in our high school aerospace program, taking all of the classes offered. I have earned my private pilot license in fixed-wing aircraft and now want to move on to aviation college and a career as a pilot.

Shanysa Cardarelli

As I looked at the faces of the men around me in the helicopter on one of my early flights, I knew I was the only who was in total awe and amazement. Wind knocked at the helicopter, and the Atlantic brooded beneath us, yet instead of fear, I felt only this calm assurance that I was right where I was supposed to be.

I have been working in aviation for the past couple years and have held various positions at several different fixed base operators and flight schools. My journey in aviation has led me to Northern Air, Inc., in Bonners Ferry, where I am the office manager and nearly halfway through my private pilot certificate. The knowledge and experience I have gained through managing fixed base operations has prepared me well for flight training and everyday my intrigue with aviation and its incredible history grows.

Emma Carter

When I was young, I called them “payplanes.” Now I can pronounce the word correctly, but my infatuation is just as strong.

My love of airplanes started after receiving an F-16 fighter jet bookmarker as a child, but I didn’t start flying until I was 19 years old. I waited because I wanted to join the United States Air Force. When I got medically disqualified, however, I was heartbroken and almost gave up completely. Then, on a Quest factory tour, I met a great mentor who changed my whole perspective and launched me into a successful pilot’s life. I now hold an instrument license and commercial multi-engine license, with a commercial single license well on its way.

I want young women (because we are all young at heart) to know that flying is completely within your reach. If you do not know where to start, talk to a pilot you know or call your local airport. If you want you can even call me. I’d love to chat! Please know that all pilots, men or women, are here to support you in your journey!

Alesia Coulson

I am a helicopter air ambulance pilot with Life Flight Network in Sandpoint. I earned my private pilot airplane license when I was 20, but after taking an intro flight in a Robinson R-22 helicopter, I was instantly hooked.

Over the last 13 years of my flying career, I have been a flight instructor, a tour pilot, a captain flying offshore and an air ambulance pilot. I have flown over mountains, oceans, deserts and cities and have loved all of it. I have also loved meeting some amazing and inspiring women along the way. No matter where I am, if I am with aviators, there is always a sense of camaraderie, connected by a love of flight.

Learn more about local aviation education by visiting the Columbia Bank Building from May2-6, where you can view the airplane students are building. Be sure to support the North Idaho High School Aerospace Program during Idaho Gives, 8 a.m.- 5 p.m. Thursday, May 5. Visit for more information.

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