This aviation student has explored all her life
As a child, Sonja Karner looked up at the sky and wondered what it would be like to fly.
“I knew I wanted to learn to fly and hoped it would become a career for me, but at [the very] less [I thought it could be] a hobby, ”says Karner. She admits that she enjoys science and math and likes to challenge herself. At the age of 12, she attended a presentation on Charlie Precourt’s STS-71 mission at the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) museum during Space Week.
In eighth grade, she entered the National History Day competition and submitted a 10-minute documentary on the 1995 STS-71 mission, which was the first American and Russian docking of the Shuttle-Mirr which, according to Karner, was the end of the Cold War.
In her efforts to use primary sources, she contacted astronauts Precourt and Robert “Hoot” Gibson, who were generous with their time and assisted Karner in his research.
“These heroes encouraged me, a very young girl, to turn my dream of flying into reality,” says Karner. “They gave me the confidence to accomplish my own mission,” she adds.
On the way to the space camp
Later that year, Karner continued his passion for aviation at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama. Space Camp has been providing hands-on experience for students since 1982. The program provides the opportunity to experience the history of space and flight, experience simulators, and learn what it means to be an astronaut.
In 2018, a Secret Santa (her cousin Geoff) set her up on a Young Eagles robbery, and she never looked back.
“As soon as I felt the push to apply full throttle and the wheels lost contact with the ground on takeoff, I couldn’t hide my smile,” says Karner.
She credits her local EAA chapter 252, where they encouraged her dream of flying.
At the age of 17, Karner was awarded one of the first Ray Aviation scholarships, so she began her flight training with Jamie Pittman at Discover Flight, LLC in Oshkosh. After six intense months, she obtained her private pilot’s license in 2019.
She had to get school board approval to attend classes during the school day. Karner was the first student to prepare for her private pilot’s certificate as a high school student in Oshkosh, home of EAA.
College, and a change of direction
The University of North Dakota was Karner’s choice for college, and she began her education in August 2020. She enrolled without ever setting foot on campus because she knew their program was aviation is recognized as one of the best programs for all careers in aviation. Although Karner feared the winter weather, she adjusted well and said, “It turned out to be not too bad. ”
Although Karner’s initial goal was to complete the fixed-wing commercial aviation program, she looked at helicopters and thought about switching to rotorcraft. She was considering a career in flight for emergency medical services or rescue operations. She made an appointment with the chief rotorcraft instructor, Wesley Van Dell, who gave a tour of the helicopter hangar.
It was then that Karner knew his heart was to achieve rotorcraft certification. Her advisor encouraged her to complete her fixed-wing course before moving on to rotorcraft training in the spring semester. She passed her private pilot control tour in December 2019. She began her helicopter training in January 2021.
“I am extremely happy that I decided to change positions,” said Karner. “The rotorcraft is much more difficult but rewarding. I’m very excited about future opportunities with helicopters that I wouldn’t have with fixed-wing planes, ”she adds.
A rare breed
According to data from the FAA Aviation Center, women made up 8.4% of all pilots in 2020. Women make up only 7% of professional pilots. Apparently, the figures for female rotorcraft pilots are not even shown as a percentage of the total 13,649 rotorcraft pilots.
Last semester, Karner was the only woman to take the private helicopter ground course. Currently, she is one of two rotorcraft students in a class of twelve.
“While this can be seen as an extreme ratio, I’m not intimidated by male ‘domination’,” Karner shares. “It certainly doesn’t affect my training in any way. The male-to-female ratio of flight instructors and the like, however, and the program is still a small group, “which allows us to bond closely with each other,” says Karner.
In June 2021, she passed her additional private rotorcraft helicopter certification.
When asked what his favorite part of training was, Karner replied that it was theft.
“I love to fly, it’s that easy,” she says. “The hardest part in college is finding your balance. Karner is taking a full semester of credits while taking his flying lessons in addition to holding two jobs.
One of these positions is that of student ambassador on the campus of the Aerospace Success Center. Karner had the opportunity to attend EAA AirVenture 2021 with the team from the University of North Dakota. He was asked to fly one of their Robinson R-44 Cadet helicopters to the event with his flight instructor, Adam Suchomel. “It was an incredible opportunity [and] I was incredibly proud to fly our UND plane to my home airport where it all started for me and represent both UND and Oshkosh, ”Karner said. “Not to mention the great honor of flying in the biggest air show in the world, something most pilots can only dream of. We had an amazing week connecting with potential students, alumni and aviation enthusiasts from all over the world, ”she adds.
Karner’s leadership ability is also evident. She is president of the University Helicopter Association, which she revived after its disbandment due to the pandemic. She stays involved with other campus groups besides intramural sports and enjoys spending time with her classmates.
After graduating, Karner plans to teach as a certified flight instructor to hone his skills as a rotorcraft pilot. She looks forward to teaching younger students and plans to inspire others through the Young Eagles program. She also wants to keep her fixed-wing certification so she can fly planes for fun.
Karner would eventually like to fly for emergency medical services or rescue operations someday, but she also considered helicopter jobs such as tour flights, piloting a news or traffic crew or even utility operations. . She has a few years left before she leaves the University of North Dakota, but this young woman will surely find her ideal career as a helicopter pilot when the time comes.