Tailwind Air chief pilot Maria Maas Pettit remembers the exact moment the idea of becoming a pilot first flashed into her mind.
She was seven years old and travelling with her mother on Northwest Airlines from South Dakota, where her family lived, to Los Angeles. It was her first time flying.
A flight attendant approached to give Pettit a set of Northwest “wings” – those airline-branded souvenirs that carriers once handed out to every child who showed the slightest interest in flight.
“Someday, you could be a flight attendant,” the Northwest attendant told her.
Her mother leaned down, adding, “Or, you can sit up front and fly the plane”, says Pettit, now 41.
That sparked inspiration that led her from the plains of South Dakota to the cockpits of modern business jets and the chief-pilot job at Tailwind. Along the way, she has logged about 6,000h of flight time.
“It really put a sense of drive into me as a young child,” Pettit says of her mother’s comment. “It really gave me something to strive for.”
Pettit comes from a family with no aviation ties. She grew up on her parents’ dairy farm in the small South Dakota town of Corsica – an environment she says gave her “an excellent sense of work ethic and responsibility”.
Sure, she had seen crop dusters buzzing over the fields. “They were cool”, Pettit says, though she certainty was not obsessed with aviation.
But Pettit had long harboured a desire to travel – to experience the world beyond the Corsica farm. “I wanted to visit other places, and find what different cultures and education backgrounds other places had.”
The pilot idea resurfaced during high school after Pettit completed one of those job-aptitude exams. The results: be a boat captain or airline pilot.
That was all it took.
Figuring the military offered the only path to a pilot career, Pettit applied to attend the United States Air Force Academy, only to be denied. A school administrative advisor then mentioned that some colleges offered aviation degrees.
Pettit’s father was cold on the idea. “My dad thought flying was very dangerous, because all he knew was crop dusting, which is very dangerous,” she says.
On her father’s urging, Pettit enrolled at local college Dakota Wesleyan University, where she played basketball and studied math while taking flight lessons on the side at a nearby airport. She then transferred to the University of North Dakota, which has a powerhouse of an aviation-studies programme. She graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in commercial aviation.
“That’s where I finished my licenses and all of my ratings and became a flight instructor, and kind of took off from there,” Pettit says.
She next struck out into the working world, landing a flight-instructor job in the New York City suburb of White Plains. A year later Pettit signed on with Connecticut company Tradewind Aviation, flying to New England vacation destinations like Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, and to St Barts in the Caribbean.
Seeking more time in multi-engined aircraft, Pettit then flew Beechcraft Barons for Reliance Aviation in Connecticut before joining Vermont-based Heritage Aviation, where she flew a Beechcraft King Air and later a Cessna Citation Excel midsize business jet, as first officer.
Pettit later piloted and managed a King Air and a Citation Bravo before joining NetJets-owned Executive Jet Management, flying a Citation CJ3 and Embraer Legacy 600 business jet.
In 2018, she ended up at Tailwind, a Port Chester, New York-based company that operates business-aircraft charters and runs a small airline serving New England, New York and the Washington, DC area with Cessna 208B Grand Caravan EX seaplanes.
Pettit works on the charter side of Tailwind, which has given her the opportunity to captain large business jets, including the Dassault Aviation Falcon 50 and Gulfstream IV. Along the way, Pettit also stepped into management roles, first becoming Tailwind’s assistant chief pilot and then, about three years ago, landing her current role as chief pilot.
“This is definitely the most difficult job I’ve ever had,” says Pettit, noting that she manages 40 people, including eight flight attendants and 32 pilots from both the charter and airline sides of Tailwind’s operation. She also still flies for Tailwind every other week, commuting to work from her home in Rapid City, South Dakota.
“I really love being able to support the pilots,” Pettit says. “That is incredibly rewarding, to be able to support the team from the top, and then also bringing those problems to the top.”
She notes that Tailwind, like other aviation companies, has recently faced the challenge of keeping its flight department fully staffed with pilots – a consequence of a broad pilot shortage and of the rapid pace at which major US airlines, now in post-pandemic growth mode, are poaching pilots from smaller operators.
“We are having a lot of attrition,” says Pettit. “People [who] would probably normally stay in the charter and corporate side are going over the airline side.”
Not too long ago, some 40% of Tailwind’s pilots w’‘ere female, but Pettit says attrition and new hiring has shifted that figure closer to 30-35% – still notably high considering women held 8.5% of all US commercial pilot certificates, and just 4.9% of all airline transport certificates, at the end of 2022, according to Federal Aviation Administration data.
Pettit says she has several times faced sexism in the job, citing instances when male pilots made clear they did not consider her their equal.
She tries to handle such situations by focusing more intently on doing her job to the best of her ability – an approach she learned from female mentors.
“I think it’s important not to force it,” she says. “If someone doesn’t think that you can do it – that basically always gave me more drive.”
The strategy has proved successful.
“People will realise that you are worth having in the cockpit,” Pettit adds. “It’s amazing when people make that shift, and they realise that you may actually be better than they are.”