Katherine Kennedy remembers that day well. In 2000, she and two members of her Girl Scout troop went to Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City, Missouri, to be photographed as part of a campaign that would be used on Girl Scout cookie boxes.
Just 13 years old, Kennedy had never been to an airport—any airport. On that day she got to climb inside a Beechcraft Baron 58. Kennedy’s beaming face can be seen alongside another smiling Girl Scout sitting in the cockpit, preserved for all time on a box of Café cookies.
Now a chemical engineer in the Boston area, Kennedy did not pursue aviation as a career—but she never forgot that thrilling glimpse into the world of general aviation, and she never let go of the idea that she would become a pilot.
“I feel like I had one of those light-bulb-going-off moments where it’s like pulling back the curtain and not realizing there’s a whole secret world,” she said.
The youngest of three daughters, Kennedy (nee Hammes) was an active Girl Scout. “Girl Scouts was a big part of my family’s life from the time I was a toddler,” she said.
The Kansas City metropolitan area was the location for the cookie box photo shoot that year because, Kennedy said, the area offered a range of backdrops—Girl Scouts could be shown ziplining or horseback riding, but also visiting a radio station or, in her case, an airport.
The Girl Scouts does not offer an aviation badge, but the program has awards and badges pertaining to many aspects of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Girl Scout troops can and do visit airports and learn about aviation through the efforts of groups such as The Ninety-Nines, Women in Aviation, and the Experimental Aircraft Association.
During her day at at the airport, Kennedy met women pilots and airport representatives. She assumed that women played a much more visible role in aviation. It wasn’t until she was taking flight lessons that she realized women represent a much smaller percentage of the overall pilot population—currently around 6 percent.
Kennedy learned to fly in 2018 with East Coast Aero Club at Lawrence G Hanscom Field in Bedford, Massachusetts. After a particularly rainy summer, she was able to take her practical test in January. She was “pretty nervous,” she said. The examiner was running late from a previous checkride. By the time they had completed the oral portion and maneuvers, darkness had fallen, but Kennedy was able to finish the practical portion.
After she posted her before and after photos on the Reddit flying subreddit, Kennedy received more than a thousand responses—and a large percentage of those debated the merits of each flavor of Girl Scout cookie.
Kennedy wrote a letter to the Charles B. Wheeler Airport team “past and present” to thank them for the role that they played in helping her to achieve “a lifelong dream.”
“I now live in the Boston area, but I could never have done this without my Kansas City roots,” Kennedy said in the letter. “The time, effort, and advocacy to expose young people to aviation makes such a huge impact—I know that it did for me!”
Kennedy enjoys being a part of the East Coast Aero Club family, and said she’s been pleasantly surprised at the strong community in GA. “People who are into it are so passionate about it,” she said. She plans to get started on the instrument rating while she has momentum, and also wants to take her family flying. She looks forward to going back to the Kansas City area and taking her parents for a flight.
“It’s been an awesome experience,” Kennedy said. “I can’t believe I waited this long.”