'Just Look At Michelle'
Female Corporate Pilot With CAP Ties Blazes A Career Path Filled With Possibilities
By Kristi Carr
Michelle Knoll’s journey to becoming a corporate pilot for a Fortune 500 company just might serve as a blueprint for women who want to earn their living by flying. Her advice to other women contemplating a career in the cockpit could prove the spark to get them headed in that direction.
A longer road
Despite growing up with a father who had worked on Cape Canaveral’s space programs, Knoll didn’t long to fly from an early age. What she did long to do was travel, and she made that happen by earning a degree in international marketing at the University of California, Los Angeles, and then parlaying that into jobs with the Walt Disney Co. in Hong Kong and Australia.
After returning to the States, she focused her attention on running her own business, mentoring and volunteering. In her mid-30s she decided to learn to fly. She took a lesson at her local airport in Louisiana and was soon infatuated with the feeling flight gave her.
She started flying for skydivers on the weekends, volunteering with Civil Air Patrol, flying for Life Flights and dropping buoys in the Gulf of Mexico for the National Weather Service.
Then she dared to expand this new interest, wondering what it would be like to fly for a career. She attended an aviation job fair in Chicago, got a job interview and was hired by US Airways Express. After three years there, assigned to the busy Northeast Corridor, she transitioned to corporate flying, where she enjoys a worldwide variety of routes and more interaction with her passengers.
The right choice
Knoll loves the life she has fashioned for herself, never losing her enthusiasm for the spectacular views to be had at 40,000 feet. Her passion for travel is satisfied with working trips to six continents, including such exotic destinations as Ethiopia, Bali, India, China, Uganda, Brazil and Russia.
Describing herself as someone who adapts easily to change, she is a good fit for other cultures, even those unaccustomed to women in positions of authority. Residents of those places are more apt to direct their conversation to any males on her crew, but she rolls with it, saying, “It is important to respect cultural differences and accept that some places are more advanced than others. The key is not to get offended or upset and to demonstrate wise and thoughtful leadership in order to earn respect instead of demanding it.”
She described the first time she flew into Ethiopia, where airport security consisted of men positioned out in the field along the length of the runway. “We had the surreal experience of visiting a government official in a makeshift tower to file our flight plans by hand and have tea with him, watching him chain-smoke cigarettes,” she recalled.
Her job calls for being flexible, as her workload fluctuates, but she is no stranger to multitasking. Her flight assignments place her on a Gulfstream 650 or 550 and can range from a single day to multiple days, transporting anywhere from one to 12 passengers.
A longer stay at her destination gives her the luxury of personal time to explore. Some months she may fly only five days, while other months she may fly 20.
She’s also disciplined, making sure to get enough sleep and to eat properly.
A CAP component
Local CAP members recognized her skill and eagerness when she was taking flight lessons, and they recruited her to join the Louisiana Wing’s Alvin Callender Composite Squadron, based in Belle Chasse, near New Orleans. The squadron conducted counterdrug and search-and-rescue missions and participated in joint evasion exercises with the U.S. military.
“I was a mission scanner and observer, working on my mission pilot certification,” Knoll said, adding that one of her favorite annual events was the New Orleans Air Show.
She served with CAP from 2007-2009, when she left for the Northeast to work for US Airways. As the only woman in her squadron at the time, she said, “It was a curiosity that I was the only female, but I was absolutely made to feel welcome. I cannot possibly say enough about how positive and inclusive the environment was in our squadron. I would recommend CAP to anyone, and I have.”
Knoll’s recruiter and mentor, former squadron commander Capt. Lance Brassette, described her as “a good role model for others to look up to. Young ladies can see how they can do more — just look at Michelle.”
A role model
Knoll eschews the idea that she is a pioneer for women in aviation, deferring to “the many groundbreaking female aviators that laid out the path for the rest of us.”
But she does lay claim to her role to lead by example, showing other women how piloting is a viable career, that women make excellent aviators and that new opportunities open up daily, making it easier than ever.
Though she was the first female captain in her company’s 40-year history, another female captain as well as a female first officer have since been hired.
Only about 6 percent of the country’s commercial pilots are women. “We still have a long way to go,” Knoll said. “Nevertheless, seeing a female in command is not as unusual as it used to be.”
While she has plenty of advice she could share with other women about flying as a career — much of it applicable not just to aviation but across all boundaries of industry — she favors two tenets.
“First,” she said, “you never know until you try. I have seen so many people hesitant to apply for a job for which they do not yet have exactly the right experience. To that I say, ‘Apply anyway.’
“The key to landing the right job is to convince the decision-makers that you have what it takes to do it. If you have the right attitude and exhibit self-confidence, self-motivation and thorough preparation, you may very well find people will be happy to take a chance on you.”
Second, she said, “Working in a male-dominated industry is often challenging because of the way a woman is traditionally perceived. If you come across like you have something to prove, you are seen as manly and overbearing. If you are too deferential, then you are perceived as weak and unsure of yourself.
“Focus on quiet self-confidence, seek consensus and try to build relationships, and accept constructive criticism with grace. You will undoubtedly face adversity; it is how you handle it that builds your reputation for better or worse.”
Some information from this story was taken from A Day in the Life for Women@Forbes, an August 23, 2016 article by Katherine Love.
How CAP is Helping
Civil Air Patrol is working toward a goal of making available to its cadets as many as 500 flight and aviation-related scholarships. Among those offered directly through CAP is the Col. Mary Feik Flight Scholarship, a female-only program that typically awards two scholarships annually.
Lt. Col. Leslie Vazquez, CAP’s aviation industry liaison, said the industry is very interested in diversity and is encouraged by the number of females who participate as cadets in CAP — 20 percent of total cadet enrollment.
Many CAP cadets also tap into flight scholarships from other organizations, such as the Ninety-Nines, Women in Aviation and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. Listings for both the CAP scholarships and the ones offered through outside groups can be found on Civil Air Patrol’s website.