Upon meeting New Windsor resident Heather Howley, most people never expect the petite 27-year-old to say she’s a licensed helicopter pilot and instructor. But Howley, who owns Independent Helicopters — a flight training facility based out of Stewart International Airport — and who teaches at SUNY Ulster, has booked more hours in the air and collected more licenses than some seasoned pilots twice her age. And she’s confident in her abilities. “People often see me with an older male student and will think he’s the pilot,” she says. “When I get in the helicopter, they’ll ask, ‘You’re the pilot? You’re flying this?’ and I’m like ‘Yeah; that okay? I think I’m a better pilot than my student is.’ I always get that reaction. I think it’s pretty funny.”
What made you want to become a pilot?
I’m originally from Niskayuna, New York, but traveled to Europe a few years ago and stayed there for two months, taking small planes everywhere I went. After a while I started thinking “I could totally fly a plane, why am I paying other people to do it for me? This is silly.” So when I got back to America, I moved to California on a whim and started learning how. I found I didn’t really like flying small airplanes, but when I went up for a helicopter ride, I thought, “This is it — I have to do this.” I flew in San Diego for year or so, spent time in Colorado, then came back to New York. It took 20 months of training to become an instructor. And now it’s like a drug for me; I have to fly all the time.
Where are your favorite places to fly?
If I’m feeling low-key, I’ll go up to the Shawangunk Mountains by the Ridge. There’s a lake, a little beach area, waterfalls; it’s so pretty. And I love flying though the city — night, day, doesn’t matter. I’ll fly all over Manhattan, over the East River, the Harlem River; it’s fun when you can pass cars and wave to them because they’re all stuck in traffic.
Most unusual thing you’ve seen from the air?
You see people doing silly things all the time, like mowing their lawn in circles or swimming naked in their pool. I love flying over skydivers. It sounds weird, but it’s really cool.
Don’t you think that intimidates them?
Oh yeah, they get freaked out. They hate it. But I’ll only do it to friends, so I think it’s hysterical. I make sure I stay far enough away that I don’t interfere or make it unsafe for them.
In her element: Howley is all business as she maneuvers her copter around the airspace near Stewart Airport
How did you become involved with SUNY?
I approached them and said, “Listen, we should do a helicopter class, this is what I’m thinking, this is how many students I think we can get, this is how much we can charge,” and they were all for it. I’ve been teaching for two years now.
How do you weed out students to see which ones are serious about it?
When you teach them all the ways that they can kill themselves, that usually weeds them out pretty quick. When it’s time to put them in the helicopter, if they’re good at it I’ll let them continue but if they’re really just not getting it, I’ll ask them to reconsider. It takes a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of effort to get a license. For the ones that I don’t think are going to make it, I try to be as honest and straightforward as I can.
What do your students generally do after becoming pilots?
It varies; I’ve taught people from ages 16 to 72. One student was already a state trooper who can now do aviation work, another was NYPD, one has become an instructor with me. Some just want to be able to fly. There was a gentleman who broke his back and has to walk with crutches who wanted to learn, but wasn’t sure if he’d be able to fly. We worked in the simulator together, and he needed a little help, but he could do it. We haven’t been up in the helicopter yet, I’m a little worried about the wind and his reaction time, but other than that, he’s so excited. For someone who can’t really walk, to be able to fly — it’s great.
Ever have any close calls?
When I worked for a previous company a student almost killed me. I had him fuel a helicopter for a solo ride; I told him a specific level to fill it to, but he topped it off with 50 gallons of fuel, putting a lot more weight in the back. When he lifted the helicopter, it rocked back, he overcorrected, and it started drifting forward. The main rotors hit a pole in front of him and he swung around so fast that the tail came down, broke right off, and came flying towards me — I had to run out of the way! He spun out of control but finally landed it. I ran over to grab him, and he was sitting there with his head in his hands, frozen in his seat. My adrenaline was pumping so I yanked him out, made sure he was okay, dragged him out about 10 feet and he collapsed. Picked him up, carried him 10 more feet, he collapsed again. All this fuel was leaking, there were sparks, so many things could have gone wrong. But everything turned out okay. The helicopter was totaled, but we were okay. That’s more important. That was my worst experience with a helicopter, and I wasn’t even in it.
Do stories like that worry your parents?
When I first started my mom thought I was going to kill myself, said it was a bad idea, and even when I brought her down to look at the helicopter, she wouldn’t come within 10 feet of it. When I finally took her up for the first time, I had to drag her in, buckle her in, and make sure she couldn’t get out, but she absolutely loved it.
What does it feel like flying in a helicopter?
A lot of people describe it as a magic carpet ride. It’s a very unique experience. I think a lot of people are afraid of them at first. Most assume they won’t like it if they’re afraid of heights; I’m deathly afraid of heights and I love it.
A helicopter pilot who’s afraid of heights? How does that work?
I can’t go high up on a ladder — put me on a ladder, my knees start shaking, I feel like I’m going to fall, I’m a mess. Put me in a helicopter or airplane and I’m fine. You’re closed in, seated, and buckled so it feels safer.
Do you feel that you have to prove yourself more because of your age or gender?
I feel like I have to be on point all the time. There are plenty of male pilots, but very few female pilots — especially ones flying helicopters — and even fewer that are also instructors. But I don’t see it as a challenge, it motivates me more; I’m constantly trying to be better than everyone else.
Sometimes I’d be out cleaning my flight simulator, and a guy would come over and say, ‘Oh good, you’re finally doing what a girl’s supposed to do’ and I knew he’d be kidding, but I used to take it to heart and get upset. Now I just let it go or say something back. I had one student who would say he “flies like a girl.” I’d say “Yeah? That’s a good thing.”