How 26-year-old Kiah Erlich went from high-flying teenager to company director.
Between gazing at cloud formations and in-flight G&T’s, if you’re lucky, you won’t ever have considered who’s keeping you safe when you’re up in the air.
Kiah Erlich is just 26, but she’s now the director of Flight Support Services at Honeywell Aerospace – the world’s largest manufacturer of aircraft engines and avionics.
It’s her job to keep your plane connected.
Today the tech-savvy pilot is leading the way for women in the male-dominated aviation industry.
We met Erlich to find out how she got into flying, why she loves her job, and why we need to get more women up in the air.
A teenage pilot
Erlich first fell in love with planes when she attended an airshow as a young teen.
“I sat in the shade under the wing of a Lockheed C-121 Constellation and was hooked,” she told The Memo.
A few years later, at the tender age of 16, she had her first flying lesson in a small piston aircraft.
“It was love at first sight,” she recalls:
“There was an undeniable draw I had to that airplane that has stayed with me to this day.”
Erlich’s passion for planes grew with her. She studied engineering at high school and became an active member of the Civil Air Patrol Air Force Auxiliary on the side.
“When it was time to think about college, I knew I had to follow my passion,” she remembers.
The aviation enthusiast sought out STEM college courses with aviation programmes, and went on to study Business Aviation Management at Auburn University in Alabama.
Her first job was actually a two-year management rotation at Sky Harbour Airport in Phoenix, Arizona, but she couldn’t help but wonder what was happening across the north runway.
“Behind locked gates and chain link fences there was a plane with a very strange 3rd engine mounted on the front and a long building with the name Honeywell written in red across the side,” said Erlich.
Curiosity prompted her to apply for a Master’s internship with Honeywell, and she went on to earn an MBA in Aviation from the world’s largest, fully accredited university in aviation and aerospace – the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
Leading a renaissance
In just a few years Erlich progressed to become the director of the Flight Support Services for Honeywell where she now creates and tests out new technology to help pilots fly more efficiently and safely.
“It’s an exciting business to be in right now because software is creating this renaissance in aviation,” says Erlich.
“Since planes are becoming more connected every day, we can put eyes and ears on just about everything on-board an aircraft to improve safety, efficiency, and comfort of the flight.”
The Honeywell team use these systems to analyse data in real-time so that pilots can focus on more important tasks.
It’s clear that Erlich adores her job.
“It is a community of airplane enthusiasts and likeminded kids who grew up to live everyone’s dreams of flying thousands of feet above the ground,” she gushes. “It’s a family.”
Getting more women in the air
What’s less great however, is the lack of women in aviation.
In the USA, about 5.12% of airline or commercial pilots are women. The engineering teams supporting these pilots also suffer from the well-documented lack of women studying STEM subjects.
“I’m very lucky to have had a lot of support and encouragement,” says Erlich. “As a little girl, my father and I would spend hours together as he taught me how to solder wires together and tinker with tools.”
Erlich’s high school teacher Dr. Avila assured her that “no technical industry or job was too difficult,” and she had met amazing mentors at university, Honeywell, and the group Women in Aviation.
Not everyone is so lucky.
A woman with a mission
“In order to keep changing the world, we need more diverse voices, we need more positive role models as living examples of women who haven’t let anything slow them down,” says Erlich.
“Aviation is on the tipping point of a big change, but it needs more pilots and more women to take this leap.”
The pilot herself is a mentor for students at Auburn University, but and wants all women to help inspire new generations.
“Women are strong and effective communicators, and we bring a unique perspective to the table,” she adds.
“These voices are critical to advancing the aviation industry, and there’s a real opportunity to become a pilot or an engineer today.”
Her advice to women entering the field? Be confident.
“The feeling of being invisible due to gender can be fought with knowledge and confidence. If you know what you are talking about and convey it confidently and effectively, sexism has no room to survive.”