As a child, Kaeli Emrich would sit in front of the attic window in her Chehalis home and watch airplanes touch down and fly off again at the Chehalis-Centralia Airport. Her father, Steve, a pilot as well as a Chehalis firefighter, would sometimes share stories of his experiences in the sky. It sounded cool, but Kaeli never jumped on it.
By sixteen and a half years, the youngest of four children – Kaeli admits to being “a little spoiled.” Given 30 acres of farmland to play on and lots of dirt bikes, quads and fishing, “nothing was better,” Kaeli said.
She had a horse once, but it didn’t work out. “We just didn’t get along,” Kaeli said. She sold the horse, and shortly afterward, she got into airplanes. “I miss the competition, but I don’t miss the drama,” she said.
According to her mother, Kendra, a pilot’s license was cheaper than feeding a horse. “It just goes in one end and out the other,” she said.
Then one summer, she went on the Young Eagles ride, a free airplane ride for children from 7-18 to inspire them to join the world of aviation. Kaeli fell in love with it.
At the end of January 2020, Kaeli started taking private lessons from “Scooter” Tanner Mainero in his Piper Cherokee 140 at the Chehalis-Centralia Airport. She was seventeen years old, but she was not the youngest student or the only girl he has taught. According to statistics from the International Society of Women Airline Pilots, in 2020 a mere 5% of pilots are women.
The scariest part of flying for Kaeli was not the takeoff or the landing but knowing she would have to take and pass tests. The oral examination was difficult because she had to recall a lot of information.
“I sat down with an examiner in a room where he asked a lot of questions, and I had to answer them, and if I didn’t answer enough of them correctly, by his discretion, I had to set up another appointment to take the test again,” Kaeli said.
She got the written part done the first time and had to do the oral portion twice, but she only had to do the flight part once. For her solo three-hour flight, Kaeli flew to eastern Washington and Oregon. “It was pretty fun,” she said.
To guide her on her solo flight, Kaeli used an app called “For Flight,” where all the aviation maps are loaded into a device to show exactly where she is. “It’s just like a GPS,” she said.
Kaeli isn’t content to stop after racking up the 45 hours to earn her pilot’s license. “I want to be a commercial pilot,” she says. “You can get your ATP or Airplane Transport Pilot license when you are 23. But I can get commercial, which is what I am working on now.”
“By the time I get ready to go to the big airlines, they are going to need pilots,” Kaeli said. “According to the charts, everything will climb back up and since a lot of pilots were let go and they won’t be coming back, they will need pilots. It will work out pretty good.”
In the meantime, Kaeli wants to fly cargo planes in Alaska. “I have a job lined up for the summer of 2022 in Alaska to fly for a company that my flight instructor knows,” Kaeli said. “He used to fly in Alaska, and he set me up with them. I only need 500 hours by then.” Since she has around 170 hours to complete by this summer, “I’ve got a lot of flying to do by then,” she said.
Kaeli also has some classes to complete before she graduates from high school on June 4. She finished all but two courses despite the COVID-19 closures, and her senior project and standardized tests were canceled.
In her free time, Kaeli works behind the parts counter at Powersports Northwest in Centralia. Although she isn’t technically inclined, she likes what she does, and it helps pay for the weekly flights as she edges closer to her goal – “just to fly airplanes.”