Some of us harbor secret dreams – and regrets – of a road not taken. But some of us listen to that inner voice and seize the opportunity, no matter the risk.
When Keaira Huffman was young, she imagined herself on television as a famous broadcaster. Her brains and talent landed her a full scholarship to the University of South Carolina to study broadcast journalism. She stayed for exactly three days before coming home.
That’s because another dream was calling this young woman, now an Allen Tate Realtor® in the company’s Greer, S.C., office. She wanted to fly.
Huffman was no stranger to aviation; her grandfather often entertained her with tales from his days flying in the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s. And she had traveled frequently on commercial airlines as a child.
“But I put that idea out of my mind, because I was a girly girl,” said Huffman.
Fortunately, her parents, grandparents and aunt were very supportive, and they decided if Huffman wanted to fly, they would help her explore her options. Huffman investigated various aircraft but was mesmerized by an unlikely one: a helicopter.
“Flying a helicopter was what I wanted to do. It’s not the same as an airplane. It requires both feet, both hands, your eyes and your brain. There’s no autopilot. There’s no texting and flying. You can see the ground. And there are more parts and a lot more required maintenance,” said Huffman.
At the time, the Downtown Greenville (S.C.) Airport operated a flight school that offered helicopter training, and Huffman enrolled. It was expensive and challenging. But after two years, Huffman had earned both her private and commercial rotorcraft licenses – one of the first women in South Carolina to do so.
“Many helicopter jobs are very male-oriented – logging, oil rigs. And most helicopter jobs held by women are healthcare-based. That didn’t really interest me,” said Huffman.
For a while, she worked for the flight school, M.G. Aviation. But she really wanted to work for a private business. That opportunity came with Campbell Inc., a crane rental company.
“Most construction jobs need a crane. My job was to fly the owner and his son to different job sites, to check on things,” said Huffman. “In a helicopter, you can get there about twice as fast as driving, and land just about anywhere.”
As part of her job at Campbell, she had the opportunity to take a few fun flights – one to Torrance, California to pick up a brand-new “bird” from the Robinson Helicopter Co. The company also “loaned” its Robinson R-44 helicopter and pilot to the BMW Pro Am Golf Tournament, where Huffman flew celebrities including Kevin Costner, Cheech Marin and Wayne Gretsky between golf courses.
She also faced – and overcame – some challenges.
“I’m only 5′ 2″, which is too short to reach the pedals on a 4- or 6-seat helicopter. I had to put a pillow behind my back. And I didn’t meet the minimum weight requirement, so if I was flying alone, I had to add 25 pounds of weights under my seat,” said Huffman.
“I’ve also worn high heels in the helicopter. I’m still a girly girl,” she added.
Once, a male client refused to fly with Huffman because she was a woman. But she was his mode of transportation, so he didn’t get to go.
And yes, she’s had one close call. A panel door came open and Huffman had to set the helicopter down in a field.
“In flight school, we didn’t really learn to fly; we learned to react,” said Huffman. “You are trained to let calm take over.”
Unfortunately, Huffman had only spent about 18 months in her dream job before the recession hit and Campbell sold its helicopter. Her career went from logging air time to promoting air time – as a marketing director for five radio stations – where she made connections that led her to a career at Allen Tate, where she’s worked for four years.
Huffman is still a private helicopter pilot, but she hasn’t been able to keep up her commercial license due to the cost – $1,000-$1,500 per hour of air time. She’s flown her husband, Shawn, and hopes to share her love of flying with her future children.
She’s also planning to repay those who supported her financially by paying for her nephew’s education, when it’s time. Owen Jase is 3 and currently undecided on his career path.
Huffman says her experience as a pilot has benefited her as a Realtor.
“It taught me attention to detail – there are so many for every transaction,” she said.
“Everything is risky. You just have to simply go for it and give it 110 percent. If it’s meant to be, it will be,” said Huffman. After all, time does fly.