Lewis University flight instructor makes a difference on ground, too
BY PAUL EISENBERG For Sun-Times Media
Natalie Kasak of Elmhurst, a 2011 graduate of the Lewis University’s Aviation Program, is now a Certified Flight Instructor at the university, helping others to earn their wings, learn the science and appreciate the thrill of being “up there.” | CAROL D
Natalie Kasak majored in Women’s Studies and focused on gender equality issues before becoming an airplane pilot and flight instructor, so as a young blond woman, she had a bit of warning before entering into a male-dominated profession.
“People still kid me, within the program, but I know they’re joking. I hear ‘blond jokes’ all the time,” she said. “People outside the program are often confused. After I tell them I’m a pilot, they ask if I’m really a flight attendant. When I tell them that I actually teach others to fly, sometimes there’s a reaction: ‘women can do that?’ ”
But Kasak hasn’t let the preconceptions of others get in her way. Not only does she now teach up-and-coming pilots at the school where she once learned to fly, she has taken part in both a national flying competition and an effort to make airplanes more “green” by helping to test an experimental lead-free airplane fuel.
While the aviation industry is populated mostly by people whose families have been linked to flight for some time, Kasak stumbled into the field by accident.
“It’s an outside-of-the-box kind of industry,” she said.
While at Lewis University watching a friend play softball, she saw a number of small airplanes taking off and landing nearby.
“I actually left the softball game and walked over there to watch,” she said. “I enrolled in Lewis’ aviation program the next fall. I was lucky to happen upon it.”
It was the beginning of a love affair with the air that she’s still in the throes of.
“I thought flying was made for me,” she said. “It takes physical activity — a lot of motor skills and coordination are involved — and a lot of brain power. And you have to keep up with the bookwork, too.”
Kasak’s graduated from Lewis’ graduate program and now teaches other aspiring pilots at the school. But last June while still a grad student, she and fellow flight student Jennifer Alicz flew a Cessna 172 on a 10-leg, three-day race over nine states in a wandering course that began in Iowa and ended in Alabama. The women represented Lewis University in its first-ever entry into the Air Race Classic, an all-female event first held in 1929 as the Women’s Air Derby.
As Kasak and Alicz flew from Iowa to North Dakota, then down to Texas and across to Alabama, they had to do more than just pilot their small craft. They had to research weather and flight conditions, and were responsible for the logistics of completing the complex course. The weather became a major factor during the race as they at one point faced a storm system that stretched from the Dakotas south to Texas.
The Lewis team finished well outside the top 10 in the race, but didn’t come in last either, Kasak said.
“We stopped a lot, especially when we didn’t feel comfortable about the weather,” she said.
But the experience gave the pilots a taste of the pressures that face commercial pilots, who have to weigh weather risks and safety against schedules and timetables every day.
Kasak also helped the aviation industry without even leaving the ground. She took part in research trials for a new, lead-free fuel being tested by Swift Enterprises in West Lafayette, Ind. While lead has been removed from automobile fuel for decades, it has remained in aircraft fuel, which is responsible for about 45 percent of lead pollution in the environment, she said.
As a self-described environmentalist, she signed on to help with efforts to test if the fuel would not only work, but also remove lead buildup from older aircraft engines that have been using leaded fuel for decades.
“We found that the new fuel removed all traces of lead within 20 minutes of starting up,” she said. “It really was remarkable.”
While Kasak thoroughly enjoys teaching students to fly, she says her next step may be to become a dispatcher, the person who is responsible for planning the logistics of flights, taking account of weather, fuel, weight limits and other logistics for larger airplanes.
But even then, she said, the sky will still beckon.
“I’ll have to teach and fly on the weekends,” she said.