Honeywell’s Kiah Erlich on why knowledge silences critics

Lean Into Aviation (3)

Growing up in the small, central coast town of Shell Beach, California, Honeywell’s Flight Support Services business leader Kiah Erlich says that even before she wanted to fly her own airplane, she wanted to be an engineer. A pursuit that was fueled no doubt by the countless hours Erlich spent taking things apart, learning how they work and then fixing them again in the garage with her father who was a very curious middle school P.E. teacher.

“I inherited that same curiosity to learn how things work. [and] my fascination with aviation began at an early age when I went to my first air show and sat in the shade under the wing of a Lockheed C-121 Constellation. It was love at first sight, there was an undeniable draw I had to that airplane that has since stayed with me,” admits Erlich. “Every time we drove down the 101 past Camarillo Airport I would look for the tail of the Connie sticking up in the distance. It wasn’t until my 16th birthday that I took my first flight in a small piston aircraft as an introductory lesson. At that time I was on an engineering track in high school, with a wonderful teacher, Dr. Avila, who was a former Air Force test pilot. He inspired us to think big, and that no technical industry or job was too hard or far from reach. I also was an active member of the Civil Air Patrol Air Force Auxiliary [and] I immediately fell in love with flying and knew I had to follow my passion in aviation.”

That passion eventually led Erlich to move across the county for the Aviation Management program at Alabama’s prestigious Auburn University. Graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Aviation Management Business Administration at the height of the recession, Erlich says she was fortunate to find a job straight out of college working for the City of Phoenix on a two-year Airport Management rotation at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX).

“It was an once-in-a-lifetime experience that taught me so much about airport operations. I rotated through all of the divisions at the airport including Operations, Capital Management, and Public Relations … and I [also] started my MBA in Aviation from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.” But it was something that was happening across PHX’s north runway that really caught Erlich’s eye.

“Behind locked gates and chain link fences there was a Boeing 757 with a very strange third engine mounted on the front,” remembers Erlich, referring to Honeywell’s legendary flying tech lab. “There were lots of buildings with tall stacks with white steam coming out of them, an M1 Abrams tank, and a long building with the name Honeywell written in red across the side. Curiosity again got the best of me, and I applied for a Masters Internship in Marketing at Honeywell in Propulsion Engines. Through my Master’s degree, I continued working four, 10-hour days at the airport and spent my days off working at Honeywell.” And not too long after that, Erlich made the permanent move across the runway where she soon found herself “on the other side of that chain link fence learning all about [Honeywell’s] engines business”.

After a few years working at Honeywell Erlich was introduced to her current boss Michael Edmonds, vice president of Aerospace Services and Connectivity. When Edmonds learned that Erlich was a pilot with a deep, lifelong love of aviation he quickly pulled her over to his team, where Erlich remains today.

“I’m very appreciative to Michael, not because I think he may read this article and the fact he’s still my boss,” jokes Erlich. “But because he saw potential in me very early in my career and gave me the freedom and responsibilities that most young professionals aren’t afforded this early in their careers. He has continued to be very supportive of not only my career, but professional development including my flight currency and pursuit of new ratings. He’s also inspired me to reach out and mentor younger employees and students, and begin to seek and help develop the next generation of Honeywell leaders.”

And when asked whether she thinks it’s harder for women to succeed in STEM related fields, particularly in a traditionally male-dominated industry like aviation, Erlich says she has often found the exact opposite to be true.

“Actually, all of my mentors have mostly been men. So is it indeed harder to succeed? Not necessarily. In fact, sometimes being a woman in a male-dominated industry can be an advantage. Women are strong and effective communicators and we often bring unique perspectives. I see the novelty of being a woman in a male-dominated industry as a great opportunity to creatively bring new ideas to an organization. A smart and confident woman is unstoppable, regardless of her profession or who she is surrounded by. That is what my parents instilled in me as a child and that is what I aspire to show other young women interested in pursuing their dreams. We need more positive role models as living examples of women who haven’t let anything slow them down.”

“The best way to silence critics” she adds, “is with knowledge. In my role it is very common to walk into a large meeting and not only am I the only woman, but I am also the youngest by far. Working in a global company has opened my eyes to many wonderful and diverse cultures and inevitably I run into some gender stereotypes from time to time. But I actually try to have fun with it: ‘Yes, hello, me over here, I run this business!'” And more often than not Erlich says that feeling of seeming invisible because of age or gender can best be fought off with knowledge and confidence.

“If you know what you are talking about and convey it confidently and effectively, sexism has no room to survive,” says Erlich. “We’ve all been ‘mansplained’ to. But when it’s a topic I’m knowledgeable on, challenge accepted! Because I can’t wait to ‘womansplain’ to you why you’re wrong!”