A future to smile about: Aviation grad on fast track to flight deck

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Long before her aviation dreams took flight, Emily Hartzell thought dentistry might be in the cards.

"I had braces for about four years, and I thought that was pretty cool. So, I was going to go to college pre-dental and then become an orthodontist," Hartzell remembers. "People's smiles are one of the first things I look at. So I thought, why not help people have a nice smile, because somebody helped me have one."

But when she started her college search, she felt her passion for perfecting pearly whites dissipating. She felt a bit lost until her uncle, Steve Denomme, a 2000 Western Michigan University alumnus who is now a Delta pilot, suggested visiting his alma mater.

Emily Hartzell stands in front of a plane.

Hartzell will remain at Western as a certified flight instructor after graduation while she completes her required hours in the Propel Pilot Career Path Program.

"He said, 'I think she's got the right personality to be a pilot," Hartzell says. She remembers feeling instantly at home on Western's Main Campus. But what really solidified her future as a Bronco was her introduction flight at the College of Aviation in Battle Creek.

"It was my first time ever in a small, single-engine plane, and I did the takeoff. I remember climbing up—I barely remember the flight itself—but I remember getting back on the ground and climbing out and saying, 'This is really cool,'" she says, deciding then to give Western a shot. She made the trek from home in Durand, Michigan, to Kalamazoo for her first year and never looked back.

"I got a flight slot my first year, started flying second semester and was really, really enjoying it. Since then, it's just been confirmation that my uncle had that little aviation bug, and he passed it on to me. And it was the right move."

From uncertain of her career path to laser focused, Hartzell is poised to graduate in Western's fall commencement ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 16, with degrees in aviation flight science and management and operations and a job waiting for her at Delta through the Propel Pilot Career Path Program, one of several career pathway partnerships that put aviation Broncos on track to guaranteed jobs with major airlines. 

"The Propel program has absolutely been a game changer," says Hartzell, who will complete her required flight hours for Delta as a certified flight instructor at Western. "Something I always tell prospective students is to look at the opportunities in your future career that Western is able to provide to you. We have so many programs that will give you a jump-start on your career, shorten your time at a regional carrier and get you to one of those mainline, legacy carriers."


Four students pose for a photo on the wing of an airplane.

Hartzell, second from left, is preparing for her third Women's Air Race Classic in 2024.

Hartzell hit her stride early at Western, immersing herself in aviation opportunities outside the classroom as well by getting involved in professional aviation fraternity Alpha Eta Rho and the Women in Aviation registered student organization. In her third and fourth years at Western, she also joined the Women's Air Race Team, which competes annually in the Air Race Classic, a cross-country competition known as the "epicenter of racing" for female aviators.

"The first year I was the ground coordinator," she says. "I didn't get to fly with the team, but I got to really see the inner workings of what happens behind the scenes," playing a lead role in fundraising before the 2022 race and helping the team with weather decisions and scheduling during the competition. In the 2023 race, she earned a spot in the pilot's seat.

"It was awesome because I got to take the skills I learned as the ground coordinator in terms of what needs to happen and making sure everything is lined up, then apply them to my race," says Hartzell, who will be co-pilot for the team in 2024. "My role as the pilot was to fly the plane but also be team leader and make sure we were headed in the right direction, flying our approaches correctly and flying the best race we could to win."

In addition to competing, Hartzell also gained real-world flight experience she can take with her into her career.

"All of the airports that we flew to in the race I would never have flown to as a student. They were heavily loaded with other aircraft and traffic, and we were flying closer approaches than we would anywhere else," she says. "It really helped hone my skills of aircraft control in terms of putting the plane right where it needed to be when it needed to be there. And it also got me flying in terrain that I've never flown over before, like the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee."

Hartzell also worked as a student scheduler for the College of Aviation, creating the daily schedule of student and instructor aircraft resources in order to maximize fleet utilization and efficiency—a resume-building experience that put her aviation management coursework into practice.

Three young women sit inside an airplane.

"(Flying gives me) this sense of freedom; nobody else gets to do this the way that we do," says Hartzell.

Now, as she prepares to take the next step toward her dream of flying a commercial jet, she's particularly thankful for two important factors operating under the radar during her Western journey.

"My parents have been super supportive, and they've helped with everything. I went out and did a lesson. And even though they had zero idea about the inner workings of aviation, they said, 'It's so cool that you get to do that,’" she says. "If it weren't for my parents, I don't know that I would have even pursued the aviation route." 

And that support has opened up a world of opportunity Hartzell never imagined.

"(Flying gives me) this sense of freedom; nobody else gets to do this the way that we do," she says. "When I'm in an airplane, I have the whole world at my hands because I could go anywhere."

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