Up, up and away: Young pilot from Edmonds sets her sights high

By Makenna Dreher | Jun 12, 2019
Courtesy of: Vincent Ochoa Danielle Dunlap: “Once you’re up there, you don’t really think of the heights, and you’re in control of the plane.”

For Danielle Dunlap, flying a plane gives her a feeling she never wants to get rid of.

At 19, Dunlap has a private pilot license and is working towards earning her commercial aviation associate degree at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, as well as a business direct transfer degree, with plans to transfer to take online classes at Central Washington University’s College of Business in the fall.

Dunlap was born and raised in Edmonds and attended Solomon International School. Her passion for flying originally “popped out of the blue” when her high school counselor brought up the idea of becoming a pilot as something she’d be interested in.

After her first flight lesson at Paine Field, she was hooked.

“I hate roller coasters and heights,” she said with a laugh. “I was nervous leading up to my first flight. Once you’re up there, you don’t really think of the heights, and you’re in control of the plane.

“It’s perfectly safe and your instructor is right next to you. There is a safety feeling in it even though it feels dangerous for new pilots.”

She loved the views of the mountains and the feeling she had on that first flight. While living in Edmonds, she continued taking lessons and took her first solo flight at Paine Field three years ago at age 16.

“After taking that initial flight by yourself and being in control of the plane, and you can land – it is a huge confident booster. Progress comes out of that feeling,” she said.

Dunlap earned her private pilot license last summer, and is now on track to earn her commercial aviation licence by the end of the quarter.

She also hopes to earn her flight instructor certificate and be trained this summer, so she can be an instructor in the fall.

“She is very involved. I don’t know how she does it sometimes,” said Dunlap’s flight instructor Michael Schroll. “She takes on a huge credit load, and she also finds time to be an officer for the Aviation Club.”

Schroll has instructed Dunlap for about a third of her training.

“She studies with others, and sets a good example for everyone else,” he added.

Mikaela Pinger, the Big Bend Community College aviation program specialist, had similar praise for Dunlap.

“She seeks out opportunities to recognize others for their accomplishments, while looking for no credit for herself,” Pinger said. “In recent years, the program has been challenged with lower student motivation and abilities. Danielle not only breaks that trend, but also influences others to do so as well.”

Dunlap’s connection to flying is personal.

Her grandfather was a pilot in the Navy, and her father took lessons when he was younger but had to stop because it got too expensive. They are both an inspiration to her, and she inherited both of their flying manuals with their handwriting in it, which is special to her, she said.

“My dad has always been there, and has a love for the industry,” she said. “Part of my dream is to help him get his private license one day.”

Earning her degree has not come without challenges, however.

“I’ve worked hard to be where I am – I’m top five in my year – but I’ve had a lot of setbacks, financial aid being one of them. It’s hard to get financial aid for a flight program.”

If flight students get a certain number of credits without getting a degree, they won’t qualify for grants in Washington state, Dunlap explained.

Dunlap recently wrote to state legislators in an attempt to change the maximum time students get at a school before not being able to qualify for grants.

“For flight students, you get two degrees at once, and this doesn’t take into account getting two degrees,” she said. “Financial aid can be stressful, and I would say it’s the one thing holding me back.”

Dunlap is also one of a few women in her class. Last year, she was one of five out of about 100 students in her program. This year, she is one of three.

“A lot of the girls I started with dropped out” she said. “It is what it is, and you learn not to really notice.

“The program is accelerated, and students drop out or transfer, which weeds out the end of the year. It has to be a full-time thing in order to succeed.”

Dunlap has 242 flying hours out of the necessary 250 hours to earn her commercial aviation degree.

As Dunlap continues to earn her degree and fly more hours, she continues to set her sights on the future.

One of her goals is to build up time as a flight instructor for a couple of years, then sign on to a regional airline like Horizon Air.

In five years, she is hoping to transition from a regional airline to a major airline. Dunlap is interested in getting enough flying hours to move on to a company like Alaska Airlines or Delta Air Lines.

“I would like to end up at the Seattle base for either airline because my family is all near Seattle and I would like to stay near them if I can,” she said. “I’m excited to get to travel and see places I’ve never gotten to see before.”



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