In living her truth, pilot Kelly Lepley breaks down boundaries

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Lean Into Aviation (3)“I have wanted to fly since I was 18 months old,” pilot Kelly Lepley tells Runway Girl Network from her latest layover in Hong Kong. “It started with me seeing a photo of a plane in a Christmas catalogue and pointing to it. From that moment, that was what I wanted. As a child I would dream of flying, would beg my parents to go to the airport, watch planes take off and land. Around the age of 6, I flew in my first plane. It was all I ever wanted to do.”

At the same time, Lepley, who was assigned male at birth, explains that “from my earliest recollection I knew I was a girl. Yet societal, family and religious expectations would not allow it. I didn’t even know what trans was. As a child of the 70s and 80s there was no Google, Internet, and so on. It was only through some research in the card catalogues of our library did I find a few stories on others like me. One was Christine Jorgensen. The other was Renée Richards.”

As Lepley was coming to terms with her gender reality, her drive to become a pilot was unabated. Like many trans people, Lepley focussed on her professional career and achieved substantial success — in many ways, at the expense of her personal life — before transitioning to her gender identity.

“When I was 15, my dad took me to the local community college in Traverse City, Michigan, which had an aviation program,” Lepley continues. “We met with the Administrator of that department and learned what I would need to do to prepare for my career. At the age of 16, I would begin ground school. In the mornings and early afternoon, I would attend high school. In the late afternoon? College.”

“By the time I was 21, I had secured my first airline job as a flight engineer on a Lockheed Electra for an airline called Zantop, based in Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, MI. I was on top of the world, traveling to cities throughout the United States,” Lepley says.

Today, Lepley, an MD-11 first officer for a cargo airline, is based in Anchorage and type-rated for the SA-227, B-757/767 and MD-11. In addition to her type ratings, she has flown the DC-9 and engineered on the L-188, DC-8 and B-747.

Lepley flies the professionally challenging MD-11 aircraft for a cargo airline. Image: John Walton

Lepley flies the professionally challenging MD-11 aircraft for a cargo airline. Image: John Walton

Looking back, Lepley notes that it was only as she achieved her professional goals and career success that the incongruity of living in the male gender became insurmountable. Gender identity is, of course, not a choice, and coming to the realisation that one is trans — and then making the decision to live an authentic life — is an often difficult journey. In aviation terms, Lepley describes knowing that she was female yet living in a male body as listening to the HF frequencies with constant static every hour of the day for more than thirty years.

That courageous decision to confront the need to live as the same gender in one’s brain, particularly for those people who transition to living in a gender into which they were not born, often comes with consequences, however.

Lepley’s transition cost her a marriage, her home, retirement, and friendships, as well as a church community, but the reaction from her employer and the aviation community was also a concern. “Weighing heavily on my mind was the career that I worked so hard to obtain. Would I lose that as well?” Lepley asked herself. “Aviation is very much a male dominated field, with less than 6% flying as women. I was very fearful of coming out. How would I be perceived? How would I be treated? Would I be accepted? These were just some of the multiple questions that I processed.”

“Fortunately,” Lepley notes, “I had a role model of a woman who transitioned a few years prior to me. We met on a few occasions while overseas. She offered her help and assistance when it came to opening the door for my transition and instrumental in my success.”

“When I finally sat down with my chief pilot, words just could not describe the anxiety I was feeling. Here I am about to tell another man: ‘I am a woman’. Fortunately, he was already briefed on what I was about to say and stopped me. He said, ‘Don’t worry about it…I am here for you.’”

Lepley is a first officer on the MD-11 fleet. Image: Kelly Lepley

Lepley is a first officer on the MD-11 fleet. Image: Kelly Lepley

“It was those words that I will never forget,” Lepley says. “In that moment, he showed me more Christ-like love than any of my peers at the church I once called home. This is all any of us want: to be treated with dignity, respect, and love.”

Lepley’s continued faith in the context of her gender identity and transition is one of the most striking aspects of this remarkable woman. “I attend church in both Alaska and Kentucky when my schedule affords me the opportunity,” Lepley explains. “My faith is much deeper and much richer than before.”

Noting that finding a church while overseas can be difficult at times, she has been able to worship in cities like Hong Kong, Guangzhou, Sydney, Honolulu and Southern California. Yet many trans people not only find an unwelcoming atmosphere in places of faith, but in their workplaces as well.

Lepley recommends finding a strong, motivating mentor to new pilots. Image: Kelly Lepley

“When news did break of my transition, and rumors began to fly, I sat down and wrote out my story and posted it on our internal union website,” Lepley says. “I didn’t know what to expect. Knowing once I posted that story, there was no turning back. A new chapter in my life was about to begin. Like the demands I place on myself as an aviator, I would demand it of myself as a woman. Mediocrity was not an option.”

“I had to earn the respect of my peers as a woman, and that was OK. From the way I wore my uniform, dressed after hours, to the way I walked, spoke, and carried myself, everything I did had to be done with the highest of my own expectations. These were my peers with whom I loved and they deserved my very best. Demanding respect is one thing, but in the end is not meaningful. Earning it creates something much deeper. That was what I wanted and that is what I received.”

In her current first officer position, Lepley explains that she normally works a two week on, two week off schedule. The best part of her job, Lepley says, is meeting people from around the world. The downside, however is that “there is no regularity to my life. As much as I would love to participate in a weekly Bible Study, dance class, or social gathering, it just isn’t doable with my schedule.”

That’s just one of the tradeoffs Lepley makes as part of her career, but she consciously does her bit to help others to make their work/life balance work more easily: “When I am not scheduled to be with my kids, I will bid lines over the holidays in order to give someone junior to me the opportunity to be home with their family.”

“It’s a tough call!” Lepley says when asked which route is her favorite. “There is so much diversity throughout this world. I love flying over Japan seeing Mt. Fuji the glaciers in Alaska, the Tien Shan Mountain Range over eastern Kazakhstan and Western China, the Zagros Mountains in Eastern Iran… each place has its own unique beauty.”

Of course, getting to the front seats can be an expensive investment for new pilots. “One of the greatest deterrent for taking up this career is cost,” Lepley notes. “When I speak to young people I tell them: do not discount the smaller colleges. When you look hard enough there are options. In my case, I could not afford a four year college to obtain my ratings. It was cost prohibitive. Fortunately, our local community college, Northwestern Michigan College had their own aviation school. For a fraction of what it would have cost me at a major name college, I was able to obtain all my ratings in conjunction with a two year degree.”

“I used that foundation and experience to land a flight engineer slot with Zantop Airlines. Upon earning my wings as a flight engineer, I turned back to school focusing on my four year degree through Embry-Riddle’s Worldwide Program. By accumulating immeasurable flight experience, I was able to use my salary to obtain a four year degree. Although it took me over ten years to complete it, I overcame that obstacle and did it debt free.”

Having adopted two precious girls from China, Lepley has a soft heart for orphans. When on layover in Taiwan, she visits a home for orphans, bringing snacks, and playing with the kids. In a big way, these children tug at my heart. Image: Kelly Lepley

Lepley explains that she sought out mentors who matched and spurred on her own dedication. “There were two men in my flight school who pushed me hard. One was a retired Lieutenant Colonel and the other a long time instructor. Both of them took me under their wings. They pushed me hard. Anything less than precise was not good enough. That foundation they placed on me early in my career drives me today in what I do. I owe much of my career to them!”

To find that kind of mentor, Lepley recommends, “Set your bar very high. Seek out an instructor who has those same expectations. Show them your desire and be persistent. They will take you under their wings and push you if you are willing to allow it.”