Minnesota Flyer - Serving Midwest Aviation Since 1960

MN DNR honored to have first woman helicopter pilot


November 1, 2022

Grace Zeller with DNR MD500 helicopter she has now earned her wings.

About 6% of the world's professional pilots are women.

Surprisingly India is the country leading the way where

slightly over 14% of the pilots are female. Among helicopter

pilots the number is just 4%, but in all categories, the number

of women in aviation is rising.

In 1938 Hannah Reitsch became the first of her gender to fly

a helicopter. Ms. Reitsch was a German civilian test pilot

who flew the first controllable helicopter, the Focke-Achellis

61. She also flew the Messerschmidt 163 making her the first

rocket powered woman aviator as well.

Hannah Reitsch lived in an evil culture during her early life,

but overcame that to be an advocate for gender and racial

equality. Indian women owe some of their place in aviation

to Hannah who took then Prime Minister Jawaharial Nehru

flying in a glider in 1958 and convinced him to start civilian

aviation training programs in the "Mysterious Sub-


Grace E. Zeller also scored a first for women in rotorcraft.

She's the first woman to fly helicopters for the Minnesota

Department of Natural Resources. Gracie (as her name has

morphed to) wanted to combine conservation work with flying

from the start of her professional career. The DNR job is

the perfect fit. On July 8, 2022 Ms. Zeller was officially welcomed

to the DNR Aviation Group at a "pinning" ceremony

where she received the Gold Wings of a "mission ready"

Natural Resource Pilot. DNR Chief Pilot Captain Christopher

Lofstuen made the award after Gracie completed the training

and flight checks required. Natural Resource Pilots are

necessarily an independent bunch. Lofstuen has described

his job as "herding cats" making Grace Zeller his first full

time female feline.

Ms. Zeller grew up on a horse ranch in Wyoming and her

parents taught her to love the natural world and the importance

of balance in the human/animal relationship. They

also gave her an introductory flight for her 16th birthday.

She graduated with honors in Mathematics from Wyoming

Northwest College. Gracie then went to the aviation program

at Central Oregon Community College where helicopter

training was provided by Leading Edge Aviation which

resulted in a love affair with rotor craft. After graduation

she did photo flights in California and got experience in a

high-density traffic area. Zeller then flew tourists around

the Grand Canyon, where she loved the flying, but the

tourists not so much.

Next, she found a forestry job in Oregon that involved flying

all over the Pacific Northwest planting and fertilizing trees

using a "Hiller 12E" that she describes as a "flying tractor."

Forestry was great flying, but not so good for home life.

All that made her the perfect candidate when the MN DNR

position became available. Now Grace Zeller is doing the flying

she likes and gets to be home after work allowing time to

pursue non-aviation interests like bicycle rides with her dog

and back packing. Next up is sewing her own clothes.

DNR helicopter flying is a diverse occupation. The fleet

includes a MD500 with special equipment for stocking fish

in remote areas and a "Bambi Bucket" for fire suppression,

a Bell Jet Ranger that has a key role in the state's moose survey

and an Enstrom 480 has a spray rig for the battle against

Grace Zeller being congratulated by Captain Lofstuen after she got her wings

invasive species. Ms. Zeller is right where she wants to be

with the talent to do the job.

Although she initially had some fixed wing training, Gracie's

certificates are all for rotor craft. Her next aviation goal is to

become qualified to fly the State's Cessna and American

Champion fleet, but Grace likes aircraft with lots of moving

parts so she'll always be a helicopter pilot first no matter

how many ratings she adds to her resume. It is Minnesota's

privilege to have Grace Elizabeth Zeller helping preserve our

natural resources!


Reader Comments(0)


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2023