Two Female Hendricks County Aviators Take Flight
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Airplanes have always fascinated Amy Hills. In 2017 her husband bought her a discovery flight through Hendricks County Aviation. This meant she got to fly around the area in a small aircraft with an instructor.
“It was the greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Hills says. Although it was meant to be a one-time joy ride, Hills knew, deep down, that she was just getting started. She went on to get her private instrument rating, ground instructor rating, commercial rating, and ultimately became a certified flight instructor, making her the only female flight instructor in Hendricks County. She also got an airplane.
“My husband and I still laugh about how that was the single most expensive gift he’s ever given me,” she says.
Her two daughters were so young when Hills began flying that they don’t know life without airplanes. In fact, whenever it’s time to go visit their grandparents, the girls ask, “Are we taking the plane or the car?”
Hendricks County resident Joelene Smith was bit by the flying bug nearly three decades ago. In September of 2017 she purchased a Beechcraft Bonanza A36 and was showing it off at the Hendricks County Airport during an annual chili cook-off. When Hills met Smith, it was friendship fate.
“There are very few women pilots in the world – fewer than 7% – so to find out there was another female pilot in Hendricks County was great,” Hills says. “To learn that she owned her own airplane was even more rare.”
At the time Hills didn’t have a plane of her own, and she logged flight hours with Smith.
“Every weekend I’d fly for an hour or two and ask Amy if she wanted to go,” says Smith, who flies on evenings and weekends just for the fun of it. A significant number of general aviation pilots fall into that boat (or plane, as the case may be). Smith isn’t looking to make a career out of it. She just likes the time-machine aspect of flying.
“This past weekend I flew up to see my sister in Chicago,” Smith says. “That’s typically a three-and-a-half- to four-hour drive, but in the air it’s an hour going up and an hour and 20 minutes coming back. Flying gives you back so much of your time.”
Hills, a former software engineer, agrees, as she and her husband like to fly up to Michigan to see family for the day. Her favorite endeavor, though, is taking people up in the air for their first ride.
“It’s such a thrill – especially children,” she says.
She recalls a little girl’s description of the land’s topography from a bird’s-eye view.
“She had a big grin on her face as she looked out the window and said, ‘Wow, the trees look like broccoli!’” Hills says.
This past June, Smith and Hills competed in the Air Race Classic (ARC), a 2,500-mile women’s race during which pilots experience changes in terrain, weather, winds and airspace as they fly throughout four days in June. Participating in the ARC is one of the first topics Hills and Smith discussed when they became friends.
“It takes this highly skilled female pilot population, which is spread out across the country, and puts us all in one place at one time,” Hills says.
The annual race, which began in 1929 and typically attracts about 120 women per year, has a route that changes yearly. This year’s race began in Lakeland, Florida, and ended in Terra Haute, Indiana, which enabled friends and family members to cheer the pair on at the end.
“It was an absolutely incredible experience,” Hills says. “We learned so much about flying, about different parts of the country, and what a great flying team we make. We made good decisions and also ones we would change for races in the future, but we made them all as a team.”
Nothing is better than fulfilling a lifelong goal, and that’s precisely what Hills accomplished with this race.
“It’s been an incredible blessing to be able to participate in an event with the history of this one,” says Hills, noting that they did it to raise awareness about the huge gender gap in aviation and allow women everywhere to see that this field is accessible to all. “I’m so proud to have added my name to the list of the amazing women who have gone before us to pave the way.”
Aviation has always been a male-dominated field. Initially, commercial airlines wouldn’t hire women. Since few women are seen flying, many girls likely think it’s not an opportunity for them. Plus, if you don’t log the time you need, you aren’t even eligible for the job. It takes 1,500 hours of flying to even apply for regional airlines.
“Women think, ‘I can’t do that so why put in the time, effort and money when they’re just going to tell me no anyway?’” Hills says. “As a child I was told, ‘That’s a man’s field.’ The more people who see me flying an airplane, the more normal it becomes.”
Though it’s not uncommon to occasionally field sexist remarks, Hills and Smith are thankful for the support they have received from those at the Hendricks County Airport.
“They donated money to sponsor us in the race and came to the terminal to root us on,” Hills says. “They told us, ‘Go out there and show what you ladies can do!’”
As a team, Smith and Hills have spent more than a thousand hours flying small aircraft, and regularly volunteer with youth aviation organizations such as the Young Eagles program, which gives youth aged 8 to 17 free discovery flights.
“We want to show young girls and boys that airplanes are cool, whether they are flown for a career or for a hobby,” Smith says.
“It’s an incredible thing when you can do something that you’re exceptionally passionate about, but also get to expand the community around that,” Hills says. “It’s cool to be able to bring kids in, to bring in new pilots and bring back rusty pilots. I’m blessed beyond anything I could ever have dreamed.”
Hills is pleased that she’s starting to see more female aviation students.
“The more women pilots who show up, the more normal it becomes,” she says. “Back in the day all pilots used to be men and the ground crew were their wives. We’re changing that, one plane ride at time.”
Hendricks County Airport-Gordon Graham Field is located at 2749 Gordon Graham Boulevard in Danville. To learn more about aviation lessons, email Hills at firstname.lastname@example.org.