MN DNR honored to have first woman helicopter pilot
November 1, 2022
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
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