McHENRY – Flying airplanes has opened up unlimited opportunities for Elizabeth Howerton.
The Western Michigan University senior and 2009 McHenry West High School graduate remembers having flown to the tip of Michigan and back in time for classes.
"I've already been to the tip of Michigan before you got up," she remembers thinking about her other classmates, adding, "[Flying is] really unlimited, and I like that."
With graduation hovering at the end of the month, the 23-year-old is taking on her next challenge this week.
She is competing with a fellow Western Michigan University student Sara Karsten of Rogers City, Michigan, in the 2014 Air Race Classic, a women-only flight competition that will take them 2,338 nautical miles from Concord, California, to New Cumberland, Pennsylvania, and dates back to 1929 when women were forbidden from racing against men.
The aviation industry is still heavily dominated by men.
At Howerton's school, only four of the 40 flight instructors are women, she said.
"It's a culture shock anyways when you go to college," Howerton said. "I moved out of state. I felt a little intimidated because there were only males in all my classes. When I saw a girl, it was like, 'Oh my god! How are you?' But it's also kind of comforting. They're like our brothers. They look after you."
Howerton hopes her gender will help her stand out in the industry. Her goal is to fly for a commercial airline after she gets all the hours of flight time needed.
But the race doesn't come down to gender issues for Howerton; it's about the challenge.
They are up against more than 50 other teams flying small aircrafts in an effort to reach the end with the shortest time. The event allows participants to play the elements and try to take advantage of better weather or wind conditions. The race started Monday and will run through Thursday.
Western Michigan University's team is one of 14 representing aviation colleges. This is the first time since 2008 the school has entered the competition.
"I think the most surreal moment I had was coming here," she said. "I've worked four years for those [flight] ratings. It's exciting to see all that hard work and dedication come to fruition and to see that coming out here. Words can't describe the feeling. You're halfway across the country, and you think about all the flight instructors that got me there."
Howerton fell in love with flying when she was five years old and was on a trip to California, said her mother, Heidi Howerton. She got to go into the cockpit and meet the pilots.
"She absolutely bowled us over when she told us she wanted to be a pilot," she said.
Howerton took her first flying lesson in Sept. 2009, her first semester in Western Michigan University's aviation program.
"During my first takeoff, I had this huge smile on my face," she said. "There's just this surreal feeling that you're flying a plane by yourself. It's hard to describe how exhilarating it is."
Howerton will graduate from Western Michigan University at the end of the month, just five days after she gets back from the Air Race Classic, with bachelor's degrees in aviation flight science and aviation science and administration. She works as a dispatcher and scheduler at the College of Aviation.
Howerton is the daughter of Heidi and Stuart Howerton. She has two younger siblings, Jonathan, 19, and Megan, 16.