EJA’s first female pilot recalls her brief ‘career’
They called them “libbers” back in 1973. Any women who presumed to take on a profession normally associated with males were generally assumed to be radical members of the then-new “women’s liberation” movement. Kathy Kusner was one of them. She was the first woman to fly for Executive Jet Aviation, one of the largest charter operators in the country at that time. She was already a famous Olympic equestrienne, having competed in the 1964 (Tokyo), 1968 (Mexico City) and 1972 (Munich) games, where she trotted off with a silver medal.
In recalling her short “career” as a professional pilot, Kusner recently told AIN, “It all came about rather quickly, really.
“I had just competed in the Munich Olympics and had a full schedule of appearances back in the U.S. Executive Jet’s president, Bruce Sundlun–a really wonderful man– was involved in the Olympics and also headed up a popular horse show in the Washington area. He wanted me to ride in the program, but with my schedule I had to decline. It was just too much.
“I had been flying small airplanes for some time and gotten my instrument, multi-engine and commercial tickets. One of Bruce’s friends suggested that he offer me a Lear Jet type rating in exchange for appearing in his horse show. To me that was a great offer that I couldn’t bring myself to turn down. What a great airplane! Flying the Lear was a huge thrill that I really enjoyed. After I got the type rating, Bruce asked if I wanted to fly for him at Executive Jet.
“I was still very busy with my riding career, but he convinced me to take the job for the summer and see how it went from there. In the end, I flew for just the one summer, then went back to build my career with horses.”
Kusner flew Lear 24s for Executive Jet as its first woman line pilot. Though her professional piloting career ended there, she has remained current as a pilot off and on over the ensuing years. Her relationship with business aviation has been cursory at best, though. In fact, when contacted for this story, she asked, “Oh, is Executive Jet still in business?”
She has certainly distinguished herself in her primary vocation, however. Last year she was chosen by The American Horse Shows Association as one of the 50 most influential horsemen of the 20th century (not that she’s slowed down in the 21st). Back in 1968, Kusner filed a successful legal case to become the first licensed female jockey in the U.S. She was the first woman to compete in races in Chile, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, Panama, Peru, (then) Rhodesia and South Africa. ABC television network filmed an award-winning documentary at Saratoga (N.Y.) Race Track about Kusner being the first woman in modern times to ride in a steeplechase there.
Among her most proud accomplishments is founding “Horses in the Hood,” a nonprofit organization providing riding lessons to inner-city young people and teaching skills and values associated with the care and riding of horses. Since 1983 Kusner has served as an expert witness and appraiser in horse-related legal matters.
On top of it all, she is a competitive runner, having completed 83 marathons and 54 ultramarathons. She finished the Vermont 100-mi Endurance Run in 27 hr 37 min.
“Professional flying was only a short period of my life,” she said, “but it was thrilling. There is nothing like flying a Lear Jet.”