This Aviation Student Has Been Exploring All Her Life

Sonja Karner already has a diverse resume, and hopes to become one of a very rare breed.

Sonja Karner after her first helicopter flight. [Courtesy: Sonja Karner]

As a child, Sonja Karner looked up at the sky and wondered what it would be like to fly. 

“I knew I wanted to learn how to fly and hoped it would turn into a career for me, but at [the very] least [I thought it could be] a hobby,” Karner says. She admits to enjoying science and math and likes to challenge herself. When she was 12, she attended a presentation about the STS-71 Mission by Charlie Precourt at the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Museum during Space Week.

Inspiring Homework

As an eighth-grader, she participated in National History Day competition and submitted a 10-minute documentary on the 1995 STS-71 mission, which was the first U.S. and Russian Shuttle-Mirr docking which Karner claims was the end of the Cold War.  

“As soon as I felt the thrust from applying full throttle and the wheels lost contact with the ground on takeoff, I couldn’t hide my smile.”

Sonja Karner

In her effort to use primary sources, she contacted astronauts Precourt and Robert “Hoot” Gibson, who were generous with their time and helped Karner in her research. 

“These heroes encouraged me, a very young girl, to turn my dream of flight into reality,” Karner says. “They gave me the seed of confidence needed to accomplish my own mission,” she adds.

Off to Space Camp

Later that year, Karner pursued her passion for aviation at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.   Space Camp has been offering a hands-on experience for students since 1982. The program offers the opportunity to experience space and flight history, experience simulators and learn what it means to be an astronaut.

In 2018, a Secret Santa (her cousin Geoff) arranged a Young Eagles flight for her, and she’s never looked back. 

“As soon as I felt the thrust from applying full throttle and the wheels lost contact with the ground on takeoff, I couldn’t hide my smile,” Karner says.  

She credits her local EAA Chapter 252, where they encouraged her dream to fly. 

At the age of 17, Karner received one of the first Ray Aviation Scholarships, so she started her flight training with Jamie Pittman at Discover Flight, LLC in Oshkosh. After six intense months, she earned her private pilot certification in 2019.  

She had to obtain school board approval to take lessons during the school day. Karner was the first student to work on her private pilot certificate as a high school student in Oshkosh, home of the EAA.

On the first day of the 2021-2022 academic year, Karner started the day with a flight lesson and sent this photo back home as her "First day of 14th grade" photo. [Courtesy: Sonja Karner]

College, and a Change of Direction

The University of North Dakota was Karner’s choice for college, and she started her training in August 2020. She enrolled without ever setting foot on campus because she knew their aviation program is recognized as one of the top programs for all aviation careers. Although Karner was apprehensive about the winter weather, she adapted well and says, “It turned out to not be too bad.”  

Although Karner’s original goal was to complete the commercial aviation fixed-wing program, she watched the helicopters and thought about switching to rotorcraft. She envisioned a career flying for emergency medical services or rescue operations. She scheduled an appointment with the chief rotorcraft instructor, Wesley Van Dell, who gave a tour of the helicopter hangar.  

That’s when Karner knew her heart was in obtaining the rotorcraft certification. Her adviser encouraged her to finish her fixed-wing course before switching to the rotorcraft training in the spring semester. She passed her private pilot check ride in December 2019. She started her helicopter training in January 2021.   

“I am extremely happy I decided to switch over,” Karner says. “Rotorcraft is much more challenging yet rewarding. I am super excited about future opportunities with helicopters that I wouldn’t have with fixed-wing,” she adds.

In a hangar at UND, students are encouraged to sign a rotor blade after completing their first solo. [Courtesy: Sonja Karner]

A Rare Breed

According to the FAA’s Aeronautical Center data, women represented 8.4 percent of all pilots in 2020. Women make up only 7 percent of commercial pilots. Apparently, the figures for female rotorcraft pilots aren’t even reported as a percentage of the total 13,649 rotorcraft pilots.  

Last semester, Karner was the only woman in the private helicopter ground course. Currently, she is one of two female rotorcraft students in a class of twelve.  

“While this could be seen as an extreme ratio, I am not intimidated by the male ‘domination,’” Karner shares. “It certainly does not affect my training in any way.” The male-to-female ratio of flight instructors and similar, however, and the program is still a small group, “which allows us to create close connections with one another,” Karner says. 

In June 2021, she passed her rotorcraft helicopter private add-on certification.

When asked what her favorite part of the training is, Karner says it’s the flying.  

“I love flying, it’s as simple as that,” she says. “The most challenging part of college is finding balance.” Karner is taking a full semester of credits while completing her flight courses in addition to working two jobs. 

One of those positions is as a student ambassador on campus at the Aerospace Success Center. Karner had the opportunity to attend the 2021 EAA AirVenture show with the University of North Dakota team. She was asked to fly one of their Robinson R-44 Cadet helicopters to the event with her flight instructor, Adam Suchomel. “It was an amazing opportunity [and] I was incredibly proud to fly our UND aircraft into my home airport where it all started for me and represent both UND and Oshkosh,” Karner says. “Not to mention the high honor to fly into the largest airshow in the world, something most pilots can only dream of. We had an amazing week connecting with prospective students, alumni, and aviation enthusiasts from around the world,” she adds. 

Karner’s leadership ability is evident as well. She is the president of the University Helicopter Association, which she revived after it disbanded due to the pandemic. She stays involved with other campus groups in addition to intramural sports and enjoys spending time with her classmates. 

After she graduates, Karner plans to teach as a certified flight instructor to further her skills as a rotorcraft pilot. She looks forward to teaching younger students and plans to inspire others through the Young Eagles program. She wants to retain her fixed-wing certification as well so she can fly airplanes for fun.

Karner would ultimately like to fly for emergency medical services or rescue operations someday, but she has also considered helicopter jobs such as tour flights, flying a news or traffic crew or even utility operations. She has a few years remaining before she’ll leave the University of North Dakota, but this young woman will surely find her ideal career as a helicopter pilot when the time comes.

Ellen is not only an avid pilot, she’s also an internationally recognized speaker and authority on gender diversity and inclusion for women working in non-traditional careers in transportation. Have a story Ellen should tell? You can send her ideas at

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