By Starrla Cray
LESTER PRAIRIE, MN For Carolyn Toenies of Lester Prairie, it came as no surprise when her oldest daughter, Kelli Paschke, announced her plans to become a pilot.
“When Kelli was little, she would pretend to be a bird, jumping off our patio with her arms in the air,” Toenies laughed.
Now, Paschke is taking flight training courses at Northern Helicopters in Hibbing, with plans to someday become an emergency medical services (EMS) helicopter pilot.
“I thought that would be an awesome way to give back,” she said.
Paschke, a 2008 Lester Prairie High School graduate, has already earned her private helicopter license.
“That means I can fly any helicopter that weighs under 12,500 pounds,” she said. The helicopter she currently uses is a Robinson.
Many people think of helicopters as being dangerous, but Paschke said she personally feels that they are safer than airplanes.
“They’re smaller and more maneuverable,” she said.
Plus, if the engine quits, it has the ability to “glide,” using a technique called autorotation. As the helicopter descends, the air moving up through the blades causes them to turn, and the helicopter is able to land.
Engine failures in properly maintained helicopters are extremely rare, though, according to the Northern Helicopters website.
“Any job you take can have danger in it,” Paschke added.
Eye on the sky
Paschke’s first taste of flying was in middle school, when her dad bought her a helicopter ride at a county fair.
“I was kind of hooked,” Paschke said. “I was a passenger in the front seat, and I could see for miles.”
Becoming an EMS helicopter pilot can be challenging in terms of finances, time, and effort, but Paschke is willing to work hard to achieve her goal.
According to the Northern Helicopters website, the average total cost of the private and commercial and flight instructor certificates is about $36,000.
The cost to fly alone is typically about $250 per hour, and $300 per hour with an instructor, Paschke said.
“I can fly alone, but it’s nice to have someone with you,” Paschke said.
Learning all the necessary information to become a pilot can be challenging, as well.
“You expect work, but it’s a lot more than you’d even expect. The rule book is probably about that thick,” Paschke said, holding up a 2- or 3-inch space with her fingers.
Students must have advanced knowledge of helicopter instrumentation, maneuvers, aerodynamics, and much more.
“You are learning and flying at the same time,” Paschke said.
Paschke is the only female in her program, but she doesn’t let that deter her.
“I can hold my own pretty well,” she said.
So far, Paschke has had more than 140 hours of flight time. In order to become an EMS pilot, she’ll most likely need between 2,000 to 4,000 hours.
“I’ll be working up to it,” she said.
This year, Paschke said it’s been tough to get in as much flying as she’d like.
“I hate it when flights get cancelled because of the weather,” she said. “It’s happened a lot this year with all the snow.”
There have definitely been some good flying days, however.
In early February, Paschke flew from her school in Hibbing to her family’s house in rural Lester Prairie.
“She was going to land in the yard, but couldn’t because there was too much snow,” Toenies said.
Instead, she hovered about 10 feet off the ground.
“We had a little crowd there taking pictures,” Toenies said. “It was really neat.”
Before heading back, Paschke and her instructor stopped for gas in Winsted. When they got to Minneapolis, they realized their gas cap was missing, so they flew back to Winsted to look for it.
Unable to find it, they flew to Anoka, where they were able to obtain a cap from a helicopter that wasn’t in use.
“It seems like every time they fly, it’s an adventure,” Toenies said.
Little setbacks don’t bother Paschke, however. For her, it was amazing to see the Twin Cities from the skies.
“Traffic was at a standstill, and we were cruising at 80 knots [92 mph],” she said.
A love of flying seems to run in Paschke’s family. Her grandfather, Russ Paschke, is the Winsted Airport manager and chair of the Winsted Airport Commission. He won an award for more than 30 years of service to the Winsted Airport, and also enjoys rebuilding airplanes.
Toenies, who operates a daycare, said that her daughter definitely didn’t inherit flying skill from her.
“I’m scared on a ladder,” she laughed.
Paschke’s siblings, Katie and Jacob, are also pursuing other career paths.
Katie, 18, was recently accepted at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school; and Jacob, 16, enjoys working outdoors.
To learn more about Northern Helicopter flight training, go to www.northernhelicopters.com or call (218) 262-0099.