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How I Made It: As Helinet’s CEO, Kathryn Purwin flies above the glass ceiling

Helinet Aviation CEO Kathryn Purwin
Helinet Aviation CEO Kathryn Purwin, a pilot and one of the few females running an aviation company, stands in front of one of Helinet’s 17 helicopters at Van Nuys Airport.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Kathryn Purwin, 55, is chief executive of Helinet Aviation in Van Nuys. The company has 83 employees — including 32 pilots — 17 helicopters and 14 drones. It provides charter services for executives, heads of state and celebrities. It assists KCAL, Fox, KABC and KMEX with aerial news coverage. Its Air Medical wing delivered more than 900 organs for transplants in 2018. It also has provided aerial footage for films and television, working with directors including Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, James Cameron and Ron Howard.

Pioneering

According to the CAPA Centre for Aviation, women account for just 4% of all airline pilots. Purwin, as a former pilot and head of an aviation firm, is even more rare. The men’s club atmosphere still persists.

“You can be in a room next to two men and the eye contact is always between the men,” Purwin said. “I’ll say something and they still address the man sitting next to me.”

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But Purwin said the industry is starting to change. “I feel like most of the people around me respect me, but it took a while to gain that respect,” she said.

Love of flying

Kathryn Connolly grew up in Los Angeles and was studying history and political science at UCLA, considering a legal career, when she went up in a small plane with a friend for the first time. It was an epiphany, and she decided she wanted to be a pilot.

“There’s a sense of freedom” in flying, she said. “You’re in control of this big machine. It’s really empowering. Then I learned to fly helicopters and I loved that even more. My first solo, around 1985, was in a Cessna 172, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I’m flying this thing and no one else is in here with me.’”

Motherhood

Connolly wound up flying private jets professionally. She met and fell in love with legendary stunt pilot Alan Purwin, known for such stunts as piloting helicopters through street tunnels. They were married in 1994. Purwin ran a company called West Coast Helicopters, which he merged with Helinet Aviation after buying it in 1998.

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“I gave up flying to raise my kids,” Kathryn Purwin said. “My husband and I could be gone a lot, so I chose to stay home. I’d never run a business before in my life and didn’t expect to.”

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Part of the legacy left by Alan Purwin, shown in April 2012, is the free transportation services his company provides to patients of Children's Hospital Los Angeles. Purwin died in a crash on a film shoot in Colombia in 2015.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Tragedy

Alan Purwin was killed in a small plane crash in 2015 in Colombia during the filming of the Tom Cruise movie “Mena.” Helinet employees became concerned about the remaining management team’s lack of aviation expertise, she said.

“I started hearing from the different managers who had been here for a long time. I ended up taking them all out to dinner and realized that I had to come in,” she said. “It was very scary, but nobody cares about this company the way I care about it.”

Into the breach

Purwin said there were many doubters when she stepped into the chief executive role, from both inside Helinet and outside, including the company’s bankers.

“I don’t know that anyone actually did think I was going to be able to do it,” Purwin said. “A lot of the people who I thought would have my back jumped ship and went off to start their own things to compete with us.”

Post trauma

Purwin set up an advisory board of experts, then began winning over employees with empathy, realizing that they had all been through more than one trauma and just needed to vent.

“First, they lost their leader. Then this management team came in that didn’t really appear to care. Then the wife comes in to run things,” Purwin said. “I met with every single one of them. Some of them had me for two hours. Some of them had me for 10 minutes. It was whatever they needed.”

Her way

Whereas her husband had been a daring stunt pilot, Kathryn Purwin was the cautious one, who “always did the one-hour pre-flight check,” she quipped. Her husband’s strong personality also allowed him to run the company without much structure.

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“I can’t do that,” Purwin said. “I had to put policies in place” and routines, such as requiring employees to punch in and out on a time clock each day. “He was able to get by because he was Alan and not many people are like him.”

Advice

“Try it. Don’t think, ‘It’s going to be hard,’” she said. “There’s no reason a woman can’t do it if a man can do it. For some reason, when I started flying, I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ Then I started meeting other pilots and thinking, ‘I can do it if they can do it.’ There was nothing special about them.”

Continue to grow

“What doesn’t come easily to me is strategizing, making policies,” Purwin said. “Some of these learned skills, I haven’t a clue and I do need a lot of help. I’m taking classes. I’m in an online MBA program. It’s just to learn the skills that I think will be helpful in running Helinet.”

New niches

Purwin has taken her late husband’s advice to find new niches. For the last two years, drones have become a strong component of the company. “With drones, you can fly lower. There are things you just can’t do with a helicopter,” Purwin said. “It’s opened up areas where we couldn’t get the shots before.”

Advocacy and charity

Purwin is trying to do her share, hiring female pilots and working through groups such as Whirly Girls, a nonprofit organization that seeks to advance female participation in helicopter aviation. “They have scholarships for women trying to learn how to fly,” Purwin said. “They promote having more females in the business.” She’s also carrying on a longtime legacy begun by her husband, providing free 24/7 emergency medical transport for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.

“We want to keep that alive forever; it’s part of what Helinet is now,” Purwin said. “We pay for the maintenance, the insurance, the pilot. We’ve never taken a dime from the hospital or the families.”

Personal

Spare time? Purwin says she doesn’t have any, but “I enjoy spending time with my kids” — son Kyle, 23, and daughter Michaela, 22 — “and going to concerts with them, hiking and skiing with them.” That means no time for her first love: “I haven’t flown in years,” she said.

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