The sky is not the limit but the expectation for Piper Kimes in her college and professional career.
She gets an adrenaline rush each time she's in the air. The Boone Grove senior will pole vault at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“I knew it was the perfect place to be because it was the college for flying. Every college I have ever been to they've compared to Embry and I noticed that the students there are driven, and I want to be in a place for motivation,” Kimes said.
Motivated she is. As a 15-year-old, Kimes began taking flight lessons once per week. While getting a driver’s license is a major milestone for many 16-year-olds, that was the age Kimes soloed — flew a plane by herself — for the first time; a monumental moment. Another year later she passed her checkride and got her private pilot license in summer 2019 at age 17.
“I had a lot of things going on but I was determined to study every day up until my checkride and I passed, whew, of course,” Kimes said with a laugh.
She attended her first EAA Airventure Conference in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 2011. Her mom, Sharon, took her and seeing planes up close gave her a wild curiosity.
“At a young age, I fell in love with airplanes just from (the conference), and my mom's an airplane enthusiast. And ever since then, it's been an ongoing love for aviation,” Kimes said.
The cancellation of the IHSAA spring sport season due to coronavirus concerns meant that Kimes was unable to defend her Porter County Conference pole vault championship. It denied her a postseason run, and an opportunity to break her own school record of 9 feet, 10 inches.
“It was heartbreaking,” Kimes said of the unceremonious end to her prep career. “I have a lot of my friends in track with me and I worked hard for winning conference and it broke my heart that I couldn't do that this year. I was training a lot more than I did last year, of course, because now I'm going to college for pole vaulting. So this was the time I really wanted to go to the next level and I really didn't get to show that at my high school or even our PCC conference.”
Kimes hasn’t stopped working on her craft. This past weekend she leaped 10-3, a personal record, during a private practice with social distancing being observed.
Her curiosity of pole vaulting came from her short-lived gymnastics career.
“I was in eighth grade when I started (pole vaulting) and being a former gymnast, I liked swinging on the bars and jumping over things,” Kimes said.
She is more fascinated with flying a plane than pole vaulting, and claims that four years of high school were more difficult than flight school. Though neither were easy, especially balancing her time between both and with extracurricular activities.
Kimes attended Eagle Aircraft to obtain her PPL. First she had to take care of ground work, which includes studying aerodynamics, planning flights (including cross-country flights), time spent in a simulator (for instrument failures) and meteorology — which is becoming a surprisingly new passion of hers.
She wants to fly for an airline and cargo planes.
Her goals are lofty, as 6.3% of commercial pilots and 6.0% of non-commercial pilots are women, according to marketwatch. Nonetheless, she’s excited about her freshman year at Embry-Riddle as she expands on her skills.
“My first semester I'll be doing my instrument, which means flying just with the panel, with the glass cockpit, being able to go through clouds,” she said.
The second semester will be moving a step closer to her goal.
“Commercial is, as I describe it, private pilot on steroids,” Kimes said. “The whole point of obtaining a commercial license is to be hired by whoever.“
Kimes doesn’t have her own plane yet, which is another dream of hers. For now, she is flying out of Porter County Regional Airport in Valparaiso in a Cessna Skyhawk 172, which is a four-seat, one-engine, high- and fixed-wing plane. She started on a Cessna 150, a two-seater plane.
Her dream plane is a Lockheed SSR 71 Blackbird, which there are only 32 of and one costs $34 million. The plane was used by the military until 1998 and NASA in 1999.
Another route she is eyeing is to go through the military with Embry-Riddle’s ROTC program. Her family has a history in the military, which brings a lot of interest to her but she said “it’s definitely on the back burner.”
Kimes is motivated to be eligible to fly for an airline when she graduates from Embry-Riddle. She plans to become a certified flight instructor and reach 1,000 flight hours independent of her coursework to qualify.
“I knew I wanted to make a career out of flying since I've eyed an airplane up front," she said. "It's become a passion of mine and I want to build on that."
(Editor's note: This story originally appeared in The Times of Northwest Indiana)