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Flying high
Local women have a passion for piloting

COVINGTON - In the male-dominated world of helicopter pilots, Newton County residents Katie Downey and Genia Powell are defying the status quo.

The women have found a shared passion in flying, a hobby neither expected they'd ever take up; but for both, one ride in a helicopter was all it took to get hooked.

When Powell took a helicopter tour of Panama City, Fla., in the summer of 2006, she didn't expect the trip would change her life. But right away, she knew she wanted to go up again, and the next time, she wanted to be the one at the controls.

"I fell in love with it, and I came back and started taking lessons," she said.

It took Powell 10 months to get her private helicopter license, and in April 2007, she flew solo from her training school in California to Georgia.

"It's fun to fly and be up in the air. You get to see the world from a different perspective. It's kind of empowering," she said.

Like Powell, Downey wasn't content to be in the passenger's seat.

Her husband is a developer who purchased his own

helicopter for business purposes, but rarely had time to use it. So, Downey would travel in his stead, with a private pilot. She soon decided it was time to trade seats.

"The first time I went out I got hooked. It's a bit of an addiction," she said.

Powell and Downey said this love-at-first-flight reaction is common among the women pilots they've met.

Male pilots typically have the desire to fly as early as 4- or 5-years-old, Downey said, but most women don't discover the hobby until much later in life.

Downey said she thinks that's because piloting involves so much mechanical skill, something girls typically aren't encouraged to develop.

Because of their uniqueness, women helicopter pilots are a tight-knit group. They've formed an international support network called Whirley-Girls.

In addition to providing women helicopter pilots a forum to exchange information and opportunities, Whirley-Girls is a nonprofit organization that provides educational and charitable scholarships applied toward pilot training.

Membership is open to all women around the world who are rated helicopter pilots. As of December 2007, there were 1,500 members representing 45 countries.

Both Powell and Downey are members, but only recently met in person after months of corresponding through e-mail.

Even after having endured hours upon hours of written, oral and manual testing to get their private licenses, both women are eager to get their commercial licenses.

Downey even wants to fly around the world.

But Powell doesn't have to go that far.

"I'm like, "You need to go somewhere? Let me fly you. You've just got to go across the street to the bank, let me fly you,'" she said.

"There's an element of freedom, stress reduction - everything's left on the ground," Downey said of why flying is so intoxicating.

Downey said if she had known better years ago, she would have gone straight to flight school after high school graduation. Both she and Powell work in accounting.

Downey said her new-found sense of adventure is something she hopes to pass along to her two daughters.

"I would love for my girls to look beyond what is traditional for girls to do ... because a lot of people don't fit behind a desk very well," she said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.