Pilots

Kim Darst

May 1, 1997

On a gentle spring morning in June 1987, 17-year-old Kim Darst landed a Bell JetRanger in a soccer field behind her high school in Blairstown, New Jersey, a rural community in the northwest corner of the state. As the rotor blades slowed to a stop, she climbed from the cockpit and knelt in the grass beside the helicopter. She changed from a worn pair of sneakers into high heels; put on a white cap and gown; and became perhaps the first person ever to fly a helicopter to her high school graduation.

A crowd started to gather, forming a semicircle around her and the helicopter. Some began snapping photographs; others shouted comments and questions, but most simply stood and stared. Ten years later, people still remember and talk about that flight.

The event came just 2 months after she had earned her private helicopter certificate. Flying, rather than driving, to her graduation ceremony had been her mother's idea, Darst recalls. Thinking that it sounded like fun, Darst asked for permission from her school, the town, the state police, and the FAA — they all agreed to let her do it.

Although it might seem that Darst, now 27, was born with a cyclic and collective in her hands, she wasn't always interested in flying. In fact, until her junior year of high school she had never even flown and was determinedly planning a career in marine biology. Then, on a family vacation in November 1986, she and her parents flew for 20 minutes in a JetRanger on a charter flight through the Grand Canyon. Darst sat up front, watching the pilot, mesmerized by what he was doing. "I can't tell you anything about the Grand Canyon," she says, beaming, "but I can tell you everything about that helicopter."

When she returned home, Darst told her high school guidance counselor that she wanted to learn how to fly helicopters. That single flight was like a revelation, she says. In the span of 20 minutes she had decided what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.

As luck would have it, her guidance counselor's husband was a pilot, and he was able to point Darst in the right direction, which turned out to be Joseph Y. Resnick Airport in Ellenville, New York. Almost immediately after returning from her autumn vacation she began taking flying lessons in a Bell 47. Because the airport was more than 2 hours from her home by car, her parents rented a trailer for her near the field, where she could sleep nights.

When she wasn't flying, she worked as an apprentice mechanic alongside her flight instructor, Ernie Kittner. She earned her airframe and powerplant certificates that way, spending as many as 18 hours a day at the airport. By March 1988 she had earned her private helicopter certificate; that November — just a year after her first flight — she became a helicopter instructor.

While other teenagers were out buying their first cars, Darst was busy signing the papers for her first helicopter. She found her 1957 Bell 47 near Homestead, Florida, in March 1988. Her father cosigned a loan with her on the condition that if she missed a payment, she would have to sell the helicopter. With that, she and Kittner flew the helicopter from Florida to her New Jersey home, where trees were cleared from the family's 12-acre tract; a fuel tank was installed and a windsock erected; and her flight school, KD Helicopters, was begun.

Darst now has an affection for the low-and-slow that transcends her earlier attraction to the airlines, where she served as a flight engineer. She says the big iron didn't have the same appeal that flying close to the ground in a helicopter or single-engine airplane does. "I didn't like the airlines like I thought I would. I thought it was the next step, but when I got there, I said, 'Hey, I like general aviation better.'" She gave up a career with Kiwi Airlines and turned down a job offer from the FAA so that she could continue instructing in the helicopter and five airplanes she owns.

People who know Darst say that for her the words flying and fun have become synonyms, that when she's not in the air, she doesn't know what to do with herself. If that's true, then Darst is having a lot of fun. One of only about 50 pilots in the United States (and just two women) to hold all seven flight instructor ratings, Darst has amassed more than 9,000 hours in the air. She has had students for each of her instructor ratings, which include airplane, single-engine and multiengine; helicopter; gyroplane; instrument, airplane; instrument, helicopter; and glider.

Darst keeps her helicopter in a shed in her backyard, and she flies from a makeshift heliport set up on the lawn (her neighbors don't mind a bit, she says). Her fixed-wing students fly with her at Trinca Airport, a tiny grass strip about 10 miles east of her home. There she keeps her Piper Cub; two Cessna Skyhawks; a Lake amphibian; and her favorite among her airplanes, a pristine blue-and-white Cessna 195 she's affectionately named Clyde.

For now, Darst says she's happy as an instructor, but she is also looking at her options. She wants to stay close to her general aviation roots, "flying and fixing helicopters and 'little airplanes.'" With all she's accomplished, who could blame her?