Cara Mund made history on Monday, September 11, in Atlantic City, where she was the first woman representing North Dakota to ever be crowned Miss America. But she wasn’t necessarily the biggest star of this year’s scholarship pageant. Instead, a 22-year-old woman hailing from a small town 1,700 miles away from Mund’s hometown dominated the news cycle in the week leading up to the event, simply for the unique way she arrived in New Jersey.

"Miss Vermont, a pilot, flies herself to Miss America contest," declared the Associated Press. "Miss America model pilots plane from Vermont to New Jersey for upcoming competition," wrote the New York Daily News. "Meet Miss Vermont, a pilot who flew herself to the pageant," NJ.com offered in an introductory video. "A Miss America 2018 contestant is a pilot who actually flew herself to the pageant," said Insider.

This pilot is Erin Connor, and while she might not be Miss America — at least not this year — she is undoubtedly one of the most important new names in aviation, all because she flew her airplane, a Piper Arrow, to this year's competition. Now, she represents the hope that a new generation of young people, and especially girls, will discover a passion for flying that they may not even know they have.

Connor's platform is "Tailwinds: Training a New Generation of Women Scientists," and it is, quite simply, "all about educating young women about careers in STEM," Connor told Flying. But as a pilot, she's also very concerned with the well-publicized shortage and the low number of women employed as commercial pilots.

“There are only about 130,000 pilots in the world and 4,000 of them are females,” she said. “That is simply not enough. We’re missing that female perspective in aviation. Getting this attention is great, but I really want to focus it and show people, this is why I’m doing it, because I love my platform and I’m passionate about it.”

Miss Vermont Erin Connor
Erin Connor treated her fans and followers to her unique view during her flight into Atlantic City for the Miss America competition.Erin Connor

For her flight to Atlantic City, Connor needed another pilot to tag along and take her plane back home. She wanted a female pilot, but after trying for weeks to find one, she came up empty. “I was bummed,” she recalled. The silver lining, though, is this attention could cause another girl back in Bridport, among the population of just over 1,200, to think about following in Connor’s path, which began with an offer for some free, easy college credits.

“When I was a senior in high school, I was offered an opportunity to take 30 college credits for free through the Vermont Technical College. I saw that one of their majors was aviation and flying, and I already had a passion for this, but I thought, let’s just see what it’s like,” Connor explained. “I thought it’d be studying aircraft or whatever. I didn’t actually read the curriculum, and I didn’t know I was going to be flying. The funny part is I’m afraid of heights. I went up in an airplane for the first time and I fell in love with aviation and everything it has to offer, and the atmosphere and just the airplanes in general.”

Connor completed her first cross-country solo flight when she was 17, and now she refers to herself as an “exceptional” pilot. That’s why she wasn’t pleased when people were surprised that she made the trip all by herself, and not with the help of a man.

“A lot of times people say to me, ‘Oh, you went by yourself?’ That is the first thing people say to me. Other women will say that to me. For me, that’s an insult. Someone commented, ‘Are you taking a man with you?’ No, I’m not, because female pilots can do just as much as male pilots. We’re incredible. Not to brag, but I think I’m a very skilled pilot. I’m glad I am getting this attention, but I’m proud of the fact that this is giving life to my platform.”

Miss Vermont Erin Connor
Connor completed her first solo cross-country flight when she was 17, and now she's using her story to inspire young girls to get involved in aviation.Erin Connor

And the attention spread like wildfire. Her photos and story were shared by news outlets across the country, and as soon as word got to her Miss America peers through their message board, she was officially the talk of Atlantic City. The other delegates shared the media links, and they cheered her on when she appeared on Fox News, which she called “incredible.” This was meaningful for her because of Vermont’s tough luck at Miss America – it’s the only state to never make it to the Top 15. That trend continued in Atlantic City this year, sadly, but Connor still certainly made a name for herself.

“People kind of pass over Vermont, but I’m not the type of person you pass over,” she said, noting that she received hundreds of messages from people who became instant supporters. “I’m very confident and I wanted to make a splash for my state and myself, because I wanted to show America that we’re a small state but we can do big things.”

Now, Connor’s encore must be keeping the momentum rolling on her newfound fame, especially when Internet stardom is considerably quicker than 15 minutes. Fortunately for Connor, she does have another female pilot to help her on the journey ahead. On September 28, Shaesta Waiz will return to Daytona Beach, marking the completion of her flight around the world to spread her love of aviation and the importance of STEM. Their journeys and flights were different, but the message is the same: there is a place in aviation for young people, and especially girls and women of all ages.

“It starts with finding a good support system,” Connor offered. “I was lucky enough to get a dual enrollment program where some of my schooling was paid for. It’s about finding the right program that is suited for you and your learning style. But if you’re passionate about something, you can do it. It’s okay to be scared. I was very scared and once I got over that fear I was able to push through and become a really skilled pilot.”