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"We are the protagonists of our stories called life, and there is no limit to how high we can fly."

PHD. MBA. MHS. Type rated on A350, A330, B777, B747-400, B747-200, B757, B767, B737, B727. International Airline Pilot / Author / Speaker. Dedicated to giving the gift of wings to anyone following their dreams. Supporting Aviation Safety through training, writing, and inspiration. Fighting for Aviation Safety and Airline Employee Advocacy. Safety Culture and SMS change agent.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Captain Kathy McCullough: She’s still flying!

This Friday’s Fabulous Flyer is my friend Kathy McCullough, a retired NWA 747 captain. Retired yes, but Kathy continues to soar to new heights.

Kathy’s career choice was initially sparked by Dr. Tom Gadsden, an inspirational physics teacher who taught an aviation science elective she attended at age sixteen. Unfortunately her parents thought that flying was a terrible career choice, especially for a woman, and Kathy drifted aimlessly to Colorado, ‘clueless’ as to what she wanted to do in her life beyond learning how to ski. A career counselor placed her in an Environmental Science program and Kathy soon found herself in a microbiology class. While she loved the class, she also knew that life in a lab was not for her, and anyone who knows Kathy will attest to that. She is the ultimate people person.

By the end of college Kathy had purchased her first plane, a Cessna 140 “taildragger”, and spent her days at Fort Collins/Loveland Airport in Colorado practicing her crosswind landings. Her instructor agreed to maintain her plane if she allowed him to fly it. Kathy say’s, “Building time was fun for me. I waitressed, pumped gas, and took on odd jobs to keep the money coming in. I married my flight instructor, so at least I didn’t have to pay for lessons.” Funny, I suspect any instructor would love to marry his gorgeous young student … and fly her plane for free.

Kathy, and husband, moved to California to fly rock bands in Vickers Viscounts, he was the copilot/mechanic and she was the flight attendant… a job for Kathy that paid for her multi-engine rating. By the end of the summer, the music gigs were over, her husband was to turn wrenches instead of fly so he quit and went to work in a coal mine. Kathy followed and became a Health and safety Officer for the mine. Kathy continued to fly, this time a Cessna 206 out to the mines. Many nights she slept in the desert under a blanket of stars, with nothing but a sleeping bag to keep her protected from the scorpions that she later discovered scurried about.

Kathy and her husband then ventured to Oregon where she taught flying at Troutdale, and he took a job at the airport. As life turns out, one of her students would end up being her next husband. While Kathy loved teaching, she accepted a job with the Forest Service in Boise, Idaho. She flew ‘so much’, they couldn’t legally log all the hours. While California burned in 1980, there weren’t enough planes and pilots to map all the fires and Kathy earned enough hours to be hired by Northwest Airlines in 1981.

She started her twenty-six year career flying as a Flight Engineer on the Boeing 727. In the good old days the guys would allow the flight engineers to ‘take a leg’ and Kathy loved flying through the mountains, especially since every third leg was hers. After three years she moved to the DC-10 as a second officer and safety instructor. She took the new flight engineers, now we know as second officers, and taught them the ropes on the line. Minneapolis to Hawaii was her route, and she could be found taking her students to the Shorebird in Oahu for dinner after a long day. When the training department asked her to become an instructor, she’d just received a bid to fly as a first officer on the 727, and could not pass up the flying position.

The flying as a first officer on the 727 was a different experience with the level of acceptance from some of the captains she flew with, than when she’d been a second officer. Kathy met her fair share of ‘captains from hell.” Life sometimes throws everything at us, at once, and during this time she was also in the process of an awful divorce. Not one to quit, personally or professionally, Kathy accepted a position as a second officer on the Boeing 747, found herself flying international again, and later married her once student.
Kathy would, “hit the ground running” on all her Northwest trips. Flying to Europe and Asia, she viewed her job as a vacation. She was a senior second officer, bid the best trips… three days in Singapore, two in Hong Kong… and was able to get massages, spend time reading, and sightseeing. Her time home was dedicated to her family. When Kathy was senior enough to manage the same lifestyle, she upgraded to first officer on the 747. Life was good. Many of the other pilots never understood Kathy’s choice of being senior, and flying for so long as a first officer. Heck, she could have been a domestic captain. However, as a mother who does it all… Kathy’s choices, like many working mothers, are based on the needs of the family first. She valued time with her children and husband as more important than the prestige of calling herself captain, and the few extra dollars it would bring in.

Opportunity did knock and Kathy checked out as captain on the Boeing 747. She said, “Sure, it was hard. Yes, I was treading water at times. But I loved it.” Unfortunately Kathy couldn’t get over being tired all the time. And when the stomach flu turned out to be appendix cancer, and visual migraines impacted her ability to see, she realized it was time to give up the airplanes. Retirement was challenging at first, and she had lost a huge piece of her identity, and a way of life. But not her life.

America - Gerry and Dewey in Florence, OR last summer... 33 years later

Kathy has never given up the ability to fly, and her life continues to soar. She says, “Now, five years later, it just keeps getting better. Retirement means no more jet lag, unless I want to take a photography class in Italy, or tour New Zealand. It means no more having to prove yourself… you’ve done it.”

Kathy certainly has done it. She currently writes, travels, paints and studies photography. Kathy also shares her life by motivating teens, not necessarily about flying, but more about achieving their dreams, and sharing with them how exciting the world is. Kathy is an 'anti-fear' person who looks for the good side in everything. No wonder we hit it off instantly.

I met her while I was instructing as a second officer on the Boeing 747, she was my first officer and she introduced me to reflexology in Singapore. We’ve spent time on Mount Hood taking a watercolor class, traveled the world, and lost our car on a layover in Los Angeles at the racetrack. We have a great deal of understanding in the challenges unique to women pilots, who are mothers too and embrace the same philosophy on life. It's just pretty darn good!

Kathy is happily married to Kevin, has two children, Darcie 26, and Colt 20. Two dogs. Two cats. And they recently placed wind generators on their wheat farm in Oregon.

Kathy's outlook on life: “Change is the only thing that is certain. Love and gratitude are underrated. Enjoy life to the fullest.”

Colt and Darcie

Kathy, we all miss your smiling face, laughter, and positive attitude on the flight line…but you’re always with us. Please leave Kathy a message... I know she would love to hear from you!


  1. Kathy and Karlene, you both seem like people I love to fly with: people whose lives ebb and flow, twist and turn, but always end up with them back in a cockpit. Cheers!

  2. Brilliant! "Girl power" as those Spice Girls used to say.

  3. Wow, thats a really inspiring story! She went a long way! I really like the post Fridays Fabulous flyers :)

  4. so lucky to be able to fly a 747 it wont be around by the time i get up there

  5. My wife and I met Kathy in our travels, and have been captivated by her eternal optimism, self-confidence, warm heart, and willingness to share the goodness of her life with others. As her mother says, "dangerously friendly". I don't think so -- were that more people were like her. We visited the wheat/windmill farm recently and were impressed with what Kathy and Kevin are doing. We all should get as much out of life.

  6. Nate, Thanks! We would love to have flown with you too! Sometimes it was hard to get a word in with the two of us, however. lol. Life is full of twists and turns...ya gotta love the ride.

  7. Ryan... you're a spice girl fan! Yeah :) Gotta love that girl power. Thanks for the comment!

  8. Hey Pilot, she did go a long way for sure... because she never gave up. The key to life! Sometimes our paths don't run the direction we expect, but when that happens, we just have to enjoy the new adventure and go for the ride. Thanks for commenting on the Friday Flyers. I have so much fun writing them. And... I suspect you will be one too!

  9. Hey Jason, never say never. There will be 747's flying freight out there... you just never know. I wouldn't mind having a corporate Whale. If I do, you can fly mine! :) And yet... the future will bring you very cool planes for you to fly.

  10. Bobby, Thank you for the nice comment! You described Kathy perfectly! I do love the "dangerously friendly" comment... she is a friend ot the world. Glad you could make it out to the farm. I haven't been their since the wind generators have arrived. Amazing for sure. Enjoy your travels... you don't meet people like Kathy on them very often, I suspect.

  11. Wow, I look forward to that day....u have to promise all of us taht u will still do this blog, even though u will become famous with ur book release in the summer...okay :)

  12. Great blog about a great lady! Glad she's my friend.

  13. Hi Pilot... oh, I will still do my blog... just more adventure on the line! lol

  14. Lynda, Thank you! Yes... she is a great lady!

  15. Due to technical errors (Kathy's computer not communicating with the blog) I am posting her comments:

    Kathy McCullough says:

    Okay, now I'm blushing. You wouldn't believe all the comments on my Facebook and email - I tried to get them to post them here!Everyone thinks you did a great job, Kar, making me look good!Kathy

    Here is one comment, forwarded to another Delta pilot from my girlfriend:

    "How about that. Good to see Kathy is doing well and enjoying life. Right now in the process of becoming Delta airlines. I envy Kathy's "retired" position as this is all a pain in the butt. Pass along my best wishes and give her my number if they get to Spokane." Kai

    And here are more forwards:

    "Very nice article." Jean

    Great write up on you, and such cute pics. Such a baby face. Meg

    "...your friend's blog was an excellent opportunity to procrastinate while learning many things about you that only impressed me more than I already was with you. I cc'd Meg on
    this so she can follow that link too." Scott

    "Thanks for sending me the site for your article. Someone is spending a lot of time gathering all that information.
    Well done!" Dick

    "Hi! I checked out Karlene's blog! Very cool! She makes me tired just reading all her pursuits! I wish I had her energy and drive. I feel that I've accomplished something just going for a swim and taking the dog for a walk! :-)
    You go, Karlene!"
    Aloha, Suzanne

    ", love, love it. I sent it to all my other friends that I brag to about you. Thanks for forwarding it to me so I could send it to them, and of course, read it myself." xxxooooLynda (Knocke-Fay)

  16. That's a Beautiful Story! I've found this blog by accident, and I'm glad I did. Greetings from Colombia, South America.

  17. Menticol, Thank you so much! You've confirmed that some accidents are good things. Not only is this a beautiful story, but she's a beautiful person, inside and out. Greetings from Seattle Washington!

  18. Thank you Paulo! I appreciate your comments!

  19. Kathy,
    What a cool story! You so need to write a book about your life. I'd read it :]
    What an inspiration you are to me. I'm a student pilot and Love every second of it! I feel safer in the air than on the ground ;]
    So cool you married your student...Maybe I should start instructing ha, Just kidding.
    I have college to finish and my private's then commercial..No time for a boy now

    1. She is going to write a book! It's going to be awesome!

    2. Melissa... this is a comment from Kathy:

      LOL...thanks, Melissa and good luck! Although it is more perseverence than anything. And as for that boy? I waited eight years until Kevin "grew" up! Karlene and I just came back from a writing class in Maui, so I am working on that book...stay tuned! BIll Bernhardt was a great instructor!


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