Charisse Hunter: ‘My dream is to live in the sky, not on land’

Story and photo by RIKKI ALLIE

Charisse Hunter next to a single engine plane.

Charisse Hunter is a 27-year-old woman from West Valley, Utah, who describes herself as a prospective pilot. In a recent interview, she discussed her seemingly unconventional path to becoming a pilot.

Her journey to becoming a pilot did not necessarily emerge on her own accord. “I was a bad child and my parents sent me to flight school for at-risk teens when I was 15 years old,” Hunter said.

“I didn’t want to fly,” she said.

During her time at the William “Bill” Campbell Chapter of the San Francisco Bay area Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. flight school, Hunter learned basic flight skills and was able to experience flight for the first time. World War II veterans mentored and guided troubled teens by sharing their own stories of breaking through the color barrier in order to earn respect and be considered pilots.

While at the flight school Hunter’s eyes were opened to the possibilities available to her as a potential pilot and so began her love for flying.

Due to airline requirements Hunter could not start off flying planes. She started out at Pinnacle Aviation Academy in San Diego, Calif. She was dispatcher for the flight scheduling and helped with the international flight students. “I helped them through their courses and got them scheduled for flight hours,” Hunter said.

In the male dominated career of flying, Hunter felt like that the majority of men she was dealing with did not agree that she could handle being a pilot.

“It didn’t matter what I was trying to do. It seems like every instructor that I was dealing with didn’t agree with me being inside the plane,” Hunter said.

She took private lessons while living out in California.

Hunter received her private pilot license in 2002 once she had 120 hours of flying. She could fly single-engine planes over land. She is not yet rated to fly over the ocean.

Between 2002-2005, Hunter was able to get 370 hours of flying time and received her commercial piloting license for multi-engine planes.

She also earned a rating license for instrument planes after completing about 100 hours of flying time. That means she can navigate both single- and multi-engine planes using the instruments, rather than having to rely on visual references to the ground or sky.

In 2006, while working at becoming a pilot in California, Hunter met Franklin Lewis, a member of the U.S. Navy. She said she couldn’t help falling for him. He was sweet, funny, and he had the uniform.

“I have a thing for a guy in a uniform, what can I say. I couldn’t resist,” Hunter said, jokingly.

Lewis moved to Utah when he was offered a job at the University of Utah. Hunter stayed behind in California.

“The long distance thing just was not working out,” Hunter said. “I would fly out in a private plane every few weeks but it was expensive, $2,000, one way.”

After two and a half years, Hunter moved to Utah to be with Lewis. They have been together for five years and are planning a wedding in October 2012.

Hunter is now attending Utah Valley University and anticipates completing her bachelor’s degree in aviation science in 2013. By then, many commercial pilots who learned to fly during the Vietnam War will have reached 65, the mandatory retirement age, which will create a higher demand for pilots.

Her long-range plans include working at a regional airline for three to five years. She then wants to work for Southwest Airlines  for 10 to 15 years. Finally, she hopes to work as a pilot for FedEx, which pays $180,000 per year.

However, recently Hunter experienced a temporary setback. A plane operator in Huntington Beach, Calif., had been using her radio operation license. She hopes to resolve this problem soon so she can apply to American Eagle, a regional carrier for American Airlines, or SkyWest Airlines.

Hunter said she isn’t able to fly as often as she would like. But she is hoping to take to the sky with an old friend, Dylan Whitmore. He just moved from California to go to school at Westminster College for a degree in aviation management.

“Chae (Charisse) is a strong headed woman and a great pilot,” Whitmore said. “I keep telling her I want to go flying with her but, she is always so busy. Hopefully, I can finally get up in the sky with her again.”