Karen Kahn

Courtesy Photo

Karen Kahn

My Life: Flying Is Freedom

With New Scholarship Available, Veteran Captain Encourages More Women to Become Pilots

Flying to me is freedom — to go where you want, when you want, and experience the world as few others get to see it. Today, after more than 40 years of flying both privately and commercially, I’m still wondering why we don’t have more women interested in spreading their wings.

I started learning to fly at age 19 when a friend encouraged me to take a lesson at Gnoss Field, the airport near my hometown of Novato. I took an introductory flight, actually got to control the Piper Cherokee 140 with my own hands as the instructor sat beside me, and was hooked. I was soon working for the airport as a scheduler, dispatcher, and accounting secretary. After nine years, I’d accumulated enough experience to qualify as a pilot for the commercial airlines, which were finally hiring after a long dry spell.

In 1977, I was one of the first women to fly for Continental Airlines, and my career took off. I flew 727s and DC-10s and then spent 26 years as a captain of MD-80s, 757s, and 767s. I flew domestic and international routes, from LAX to Houston to Guam to Tokyo to beyond, and even wrote about my passion in a book called Flight Guide for Success. I retired after 36 years and now fly my own 1975 Beech Baron for fun and transportation.

When my career began, women made up less than one percent of the commercial airline pilot workforce. Now women make up about 6 percent, which is not much progress in nearly four decades, despite the fact that encouraging more women to become pilots is a common theme among those of us who do fly. I’ve been an instructor since 1973, when I realized that teaching was the best way to become a skillful pilot while passing along the passion for aviation to others.

Becoming a professional pilot is much easier now, although it still requires a lot of dedication and perseverance. The hard work is well worth it — I found my passion, and it excites and delights me to this day.

The Santa Barbara chapter of The Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots, is accepting applications for the new CJ Strawn Aviation Scholarship for Women, a $2,000 grant for improving a pilot’s skills. The deadline is June 1. Email

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