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Keck was Culver's first female pilot

Jan Garrison
 

Long hours, missed meals

 

March 24, 2022

When Culver Summer Schools & Camps started offering aviation classes at Fleet Field in 1972, Katy Keck was one of eight girls who signed up. Entering her first-class year, the Mount Vernon, Indiana, native entered the program with her eyes wide open.

“My dad was a private pilot and so were my uncles,” she said of her influences. All the children anticipated becoming pilots one day, so she signed up and took on the challenge. By the time the summer was over, she had soloed and received her Culver wings and became the first girl to receive her pilot’s license through Culver a month later.

But it wasn’t easy. It took some very early mornings, missed meals, and a check flight at Grissom Air Force Base, which was an active military base at the time, before the 17-year-old reached her goal.

Air Force Lt. Col. Winfred D. Howell (retired) was the director of the program at the time. Rod Sanders and Tom Phistry were the flight instructors and three reservists joined the summer staff as the principle ground school instructors.

Everyone met at Fleet Field for ground school, which lasted for two class periods, Keck recalls. The flight instruction was worked in around your other classes and duties, she said, and it wasn’t all that easy.

After her father came up for Homecoming weekend and discovered Keck hadn’t flown for a week, “I got very aggressive about getting all my hours.” That meant missing breakfast to fly in the morning and missing parade practice and dinner to fly in the afternoon.”

“I got a lot of hours in the last couple of weeks of the summer and soloed at that point,” she said. “But I had a hard time finding a place to get a meal. If you didn’t march in with your unit into the mess hall, it was kind of hard-to-find food.”

“I have some pretty crystal-clear memories of it,” she added. “I’d walk up to the main gate and the van would pick me up at 6 in the morning.” The ground school involved rotating instructors, so it was difficult to maintain a consistent message, she explained, especially with all the material that had to be crammed in during the summer. “The cockpit instruction, though, had a better sense of continuity.”

 

Katy Keck

Keck made her solo flight at Fleet Field on Aug. 3. When she finished, she had the back of her shirt cut off, dated, and hung in the hangar offices. She made her cross-country trip to Marion and Kokomo on Aug. 14.

But she finished camp just short of her needed 40 hours for her license. She finished her hours at airfields near her hometown and the family’s vacation home in Grand Haven, Michigan. In 1972, the pilot’s regulations didn’t require any night flying, Keck said.

The people at Culver wanted her to go through the aviation program for her check ride. At that point, nobody had gotten their private pilot’s license through the summer program, so she stayed in touch. On Sept. 10, she was ready to take the test.

“I either borrowed or rented a plane from the guy who owned the little airstrip in Mount Vernon and flew up to Culver and got the plane that I mostly flew there,” The officials at Culver arranged for Keck to fly to Grissom Air Force Base for her check ride. At that time, Grissom was still an active military base, complete with fighter jets. She admits flying and landing her little single engine Piper Cherokee Flite Liner with the Air Force jets around “was a little daunting.”

But Keck checked out and the Grissom testing instructor told the Culver officials that “he was very impressed with the skills we had. I think that’s one of the things I’ve carried with me throughout my life. I’ve always been a really good student and I was always very organized, but Culver gave me the leadership.”

Keck, who still has her logbooks from that time, credits Culver’s leadership training with preparing her for that moment and beyond. The leadership opportunities and the organization skills she learned “really helped me get past the written test and the check ride.”

“I just sort of had that ingrained in me from a few years at Culver,” Keck added. “Aiming towards the Tuxis medals and the many things that Culver presented as opportunities to develop that kind of leadership skill.”

That leadership training has carried over into her current career, too.

 

Keck poses in the cockpit for an aviation program brochure in 1972.

 

“I do a lot of different things in the food industry,” she said. “I have a website now with the domain name KatyKeck.com. I’ve included a picture of me in the cockpit on the new site.”

“The kind of planning that you must do before you get in the plane is the same that I do for every single job I do. I have a lot of clients that I only work for one or two days at a time, but they’re very complicated logistics.”

“For example, I did a lot of food styling for network television. If a guest comes on to do a cooking segment on the Today Show, I had all the prep ready to go so they could just walk in, be on camera and do all the follow-ups of their recipe because I had laid it out and organized it at every stage of cooking, including the final result,” she explained.

Doing one show wasn’t that difficult, Keck added, but if the celebrity guest was doing back-to-back shows or doing a media tour, she would have to prepare for four to five shows in a row within six to seven hours. “I was always leapfrogging to head to the next station to lay everything out and organize it based on what show it was and what recipe was being demo ’ed. It took good organization skills that I think I got when I learned to fly because that’s what you have to do before you take off.”

“You also have to be flexible in that business,” she said, “and when you’re in the air – whether it be a weather situation, the clinical situation, or any kind of challenge – it gave me the nimbleness and ability to adjust to other situations in addition to the food styling.”

She has also done live television appearances, so being able to respond quickly and deliver her message points as needed also ties in her organization skills. She basically lays out a flight plan before her segments.

“I do map everything out on paper or a spreadsheet,” Keck said. “I need to make sure that I’ve got the right things going in their place and have practiced accordingly.”

Keck, though, has not flown for several years due to her busy schedule. After graduating from high school and college, she attended the University of Chicago for her MBA. Being in a major metropolitan area and tied up with graduate studies, it wasn’t the time or place to keep up her flying. She then moved to New York to work on Wall Street for Merrill Lynch.

“I did try to stay up to date in New York but living in the city and having no opportunity without traveling hours to get where you’re going (to fly), sort of put the kabosh on trying to do more.”

 

Keck refueling a plane during a photo shoot for the Culver Alumnus magazine.

 

After seven years, Keck knew a financial career wasn’t for her. She describes her life like a tapestry. Everyone looks at “the pretty side but it’s the backside that gives you the foundation to carry things forward.” Most people don’t understand that a career path includes clearing the brush and stepping over rocks. And having the flexibility to take the jump and try the next opportunity is important.

And Keck’s career path did take a major turn when she entered and won a recipe contest, inspired by her grandmother’s chocolate torte recipe. The prize was an apprenticeship in a restaurant in France. She took the leap.

“I moved to France in ’86 and ended up staying for a year,” Keck said. “That really changed the trajectory of my life. I did not go back into business; although, the organizational and leadership skills I had from Culver and my time on Wall Street helped me start my own business.”

That is when she started working as a food stylist, doing more than a hundred different shows, thousands of segments, and creating recipes for a food company’s packaging labels. The packages served as the equivalent of a website today, Keck said. She then started her own restaurant and got good reviews from the New York media. But, she found, “you open a restaurant because you like to cook. When you own a restaurant, though, you are everything but the cook.”

“It all goes back to the whole organization and business aspects of it,” Keck said. “At the end of the day, you’re the banker, a plumber, a nurse, a hostess, and a lot of other things that don’t involve cooking because you’re a small business first.”

Now she does a variety of food-related businesses under KatyKeck.com. But flying is still in the back of her mind. When she does have the time, she may go back to ground school to get caught up on the latest technology.

But, for now, she enjoys watching her sister, Sally Keck Shapiro, fly. It’s ironic that Sally didn’t take lessons while at Culver but owns her own plane and flies as part of the Angel Network when not working at the famous Shapiro’s Deli in Indianapolis.

“She flies a Saratoga, which is a very impressive plane,” Keck said. “She got a lot further than I did, instrument and commercial rating. I’m very proud of the work she does with the plane.”

The Keck family connection to Culver runs deep, she added. “One grandfather, my dad, all my uncles, my brother and sister, and all but one cousin. Both sides of the family went to Culver, either a combination of winter and summer school, so we definitely love Culver and the opportunities that it afforded.”

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