My professor at CAU would always say that being a professional pilot is being knowledgeable; 70% of the work is in the classroom.
I grew up in South Orange County, California after my family immigrated to the United States from Russia when I was four years old. I was a very outdoorsy kid and spent the majority of my summers in a swimsuit at the river or beach. I had a passion for reading, and would often read books while walking between classes; I still do this between flights!
I swam and played water polo all four years of high school. I mostly took honors or AP classes because I enjoyed learning and graduated with honors. I had started attending community college classes but still had no idea what I was doing with my life. While staring at the stars, contemplating life, like any 20 year old trying to understanding the universe’s secret to happiness, I saw lights blinking among the stars. That red eye flight made up my mind.
I distinctly remember saying to myself, “I’m going to be a pilot.” I continued to attend community college but started researching more about aviation. Two years later I found California Aeronautical University (CAU) and fell in love with aviation. I wanted to explore the world, travel to different countries, and do so from the seat of a massive jet. I knew next to nothing about aviation or about being a professional pilot but looking back, I couldn’t image myself in a different life.
There are many unique challenges and successes when learning to fly as a profession. I wanted to give up hundreds of times. I didn’t think I was smart enough or skilled enough. I remember thinking, “it’s impossible to remember how to cross country flight plan.” My professor at CAU would always say that being a professional pilot is being knowledgeable, 70% of the work is in the classroom. The biggest challenge for me was building my own confidence in my knowledge and skills. Your instructors will teach you everything they can, but it is on you to chair fly emergencies and study airspace or systems.
To be confident, you’ll need to make the effort to be present in your own learning.
I graduated from California Aeronautical University in 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics. Along with my degree, I earned six certificates and ratings and was able to take advantage of a 500 flight-hour reduction toward my ATP. I was accepted to the Air Wisconsin Cadet Program before graduating and am currently a First Officer.
As an airline First Officer, some days it’s getting to cruise altitude and enjoying the view. Some days it’s a night flight and staring at the stars. Sometime it’s flying with a great crew. Sometimes it’s pre-flighting in the sunrise or sunset. Or visiting a new airport/city. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else.
I think it is important for young women to see the opportunities in aviation-related career fields. We make great pilots and have a lot to offer the aviation industry.
Elza Nikita, WAI 83363, a 2019 California Aeronautical University graduate living in Chicago, Illinois, is the first Air Wisconsin officer.
This article was originally published by Women in Aviation as a July/August 2022 feature entitled “Own It!”
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Tamu Smith-Kohls serves as the Vice President of Enrollment Management and Marketing for California Aeronautical University. She has worked in the aviation industry in various roles for 24 years. As a United States Air Force retired veteran, she has a unique appreciation for the aviation industry. Tamu has served in Information Systems as a Network Administrator, Aerospace Flight Medicine as a Health Services Manager, and Air Force Recruitment and Marketing. She holds an undergraduate degree in Psychology; a Master’s in Business Administration and is a Certified Neuro Linguistic Practitioner. Her passion is motivating, training, coaching and serving others to reach their best potential.