Capt. Kendall “Kiki” Culler has celebrated 38 years with Hawaiian Airlines and 35 years as captain, making her the most senior captain at the airline, just one month shy of retirement.
Culler was raised around aviation but didn’t catch the flying bug until she was 18 years old when her father, who was a pilot, encouraged her to take an introductory flight. “I said yeah, I think I will sometime. He reached in his pocket, and he gave me $20, because that’s all it was back then, and he said, ‘No, you should go right now.’ And that’s what I did.”
With an initial goal of earning her private pilot certificate to fly around the islands, Culler quickly fell in love with aviation and eventually became a captain in the Airbus A330 at Hawaiian Airlines.
“I got all my ratings but then nobody was hiring back then,” Culler said. “I was very fortunate, there weren’t a lot of flying jobs in Hawaii, it’s very limited.” Culler started out flying newspapers, two loads per night, in a Cessna 402. She went on to fly for the air ambulance and then started her own charter company. Some of Culler’s most notable clients during her time chartering were entertainers Richard Pryor and George Harrison.
Culler applied at a few of the airlines in Hawaii at the time and recalled that many of them “practically threw away my resume while I was still in the room, no one was hiring women.”
That changed in 1984, when Culler got an interview at Hawaiian Airlines. “I remember when I went into my interview with the chief pilot at the time, I walked in the door and he said, ‘We love woman pilots here at Hawaiian!’… I was shocked!” At the time there were fewer than 10 other female pilots working for Hawaiian Airlines.
In 1979, Hawaiian Airlines became the first airline to operate the first commercial flight with an all-female crew. Today, 81 of the company’s 842 pilots are female. Overall, according to the FAA U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics, as of December 2021, just 4.7percent of all airline transport pilot certificates (7,698 of 163,934) are held by women.
Being one of a handful of women pilots at the airline had its difficulties, but Culler’s overall experience with the airline has been positive.
“I started out in the Dash 7 … then after one year I got into the right seat of the DC-9 … I was the first woman [at Hawaiian] to fly in the jets ... None of these guys had ever flown with a woman pilot and back then to upgrade to captain it was taking about 12 years. So the captains that I flew with had just upgraded.
“It was a long road getting accepted,” Culler explained, but her favorite captain eventually became her biggest supporter. “I think the biggest lesson for women pilots is to be confident and competent and know that you are.”
Higher seniority at the airline means Culler has her pick of routes, including her current and favorite route, Sydney,
Australia. “The great thing about Sydney is that, of course, their weather is the opposite time of year, so I would do Sydney during all of their wonderful warm months, and then I’d switch and I’d do either JFK or Boston, and then I always do a lot of west coast flying which I love. It's nice to have a choice.”
“I targeted Hawaiian because I wanted to be in Hawaii and a big part of it was, I also didn’t want to work for a huge airline,” Culler explained, “I didn’t want to be a number … to this day, even though we’ve expanded as much as we have, it’s a very close-knit community.”
“It’s just the best job in the world.” Culler said. “As far as I’m concerned, on a daily basis, they give me a beautiful airplane with wonderful people … we fly to the best destinations … and then they pay you. Anytime you can find something that’s your passion and make it your work and actually get paid to do it, I think that’s amazing … If they said ‘you could keep flying after your retirement age if you did it for free,’ honestly, I’d do it. It’s just such a great job.”
Culler’s last flight will be from Boston to Honolulu on July 16.