In honor of Women of Aviation Worldwide Week, we interviewed our very own Kara Swensen, ADS Senior Regional Account Manager and NAVAIR & CNIC team lead. In this Q&A, we discover what drives Kara’s passion for flying and how it continues to advance her in her role at ADS.
Kara has one heck of a story. Even though its ever-changing, we hope it inspires young women the same way it inspires our company and customers every day.
When did your career in aviation begin?
As a young girl, I was fascinated by the space program and watched several launches from the front doorstep of my home in Florida. In 1986, I was standing outside my classroom with my fifth-grade classmates and saw the Challenger blow up before my eyes. Knowing I would be distraught, my Mom checked me out early from school.
I had questions for weeks. I still have the front page of the newspaper from the next morning and was intrigued by the astronauts’ biographies. My parents were very supportive of my passion for needing to understand what had happened to the Challenger.
My Dad had been a Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) in the F-4 (surviving the USS Forrestal fire) and Mom a Navy nurse. We lived beneath the blue skies of three Navy bases and my questions turned to being in absolute awe of anything that defied gravity and by age 10.
Kara and her mom sitting in her dad's F-4.
I recognized most all military aircraft by just their sound. I always ran outside when I heard jets in hopes of catching a glimpse of a F-14 Tomcat visiting from Naval Air Station Oceana.
That summer, Top Gun came out. Like most of my aviation friends, we knew the skies would be our home someday. My parents would check me out of school to take me to the Blue Angel practice show each November. I was a licensed pilot days after my 18th birthday and aviation will always be my first love.
What draws you to flying?
Kara with WASPs in a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker.
I have been skydiving with the Army’s Golden Knights and hang-gliding twice. I flew 50 feet off the St. Johns River in a P-51 Mustang, made high-speed passes in a British Gnat from the movie Hot Shots, flew aerobatic routines with Sean D. Tucker and Patty Wagstaff, and spent time in the B-777 simulator.
Yet I find the greatest satisfaction in the quiet sound of the tires making a perfect glide on to the runway numbers after a challenging final approach—while flying solo.
The icing on the cake comes when the tower compliments you on your landing before passing you off to ground control. Nothing makes me smile bigger.
Who was your mentor in aviation and why?
I babysat for a family whose father flew F/A-18s at VFA-106 at Cecil Field. He literally took me under his wing. Joe Flatley remains my mentor and encouraged my passion as a teenager by taking me to the dome simulator, BBQs where we watched crash and burn tapes, and the LSO Cabin at Whitefield.
Some people would tell me I would never fly because I was a girl, and at times it silenced my yearning to talk about the planes overhead. Joe thought it was absolute nonsense that anyone would ever think a woman couldn’t fly and inspired me to live out loud and follow my dreams. I learned to trust my intuition and not the opinions of others: becoming independent, focused, and strong. I will always be grateful for Joe, my mentor and friend.
What advice would you give a woman interested in entering an aviation career?
Trust your intuition and recognize the strength that drives your passion. More importantly, learn your weaknesses and write them down: lean in toward them, working on overcoming them every day.
Respect the people who helped you along the way and give back by being a leader amongst those who want to follow in your path.”
Surround yourself with others who share a similar drive, and certainly those who love aviation, whether it be in the field of maintenance, air traffic control, or flying. We all have a responsibility in keeping the skies safe, resulting in a team effort.
Share a unique flying story and why it was impactful for you.
My first solo cross county, I got lost. It was the most embarrassing moment of my life, and I cannot believe I’m even telling you about it. I went through the proper procedures to land at an uncontrolled airport and taxied the Cessna 152 up to an open hangar.
I got out and asked the elderly man who was working on an old plane—neither of which would ever fly again—“Sir, where am I?” He offered to drive me to a payphone to call my instructor, but I knew not to get in a car with a stranger.
Instead, I confidently got back in the plane, taxied her to the end of the runway, and took off. My frantic instructor was back at my home airport, notifying ATC to listen for me on the radio. The controller vectored me due east to the Florida coastline.
Kara flying her Cirrus SR22 with her dad—a bit of an upgrade from the Cessna 152.
About 10 minutes in to my flight, the controller called out traffic off my right wing—it was the Space Shuttle launching toward space.
I was teenager, all alone, flying this tin can, struggling not to cry from being so disappointed in myself, embarrassed about what I would tell my instructor, and then the very thing that sparked my interest in flying was happening before my eyes. So many lessons came from that flight and truly it is one of the most magical days of my life.
How did you end up working for ADS, Inc.?
For years, I was the owner of Alaris Aviation in Arizona, buying and selling aircraft. My success was well respected and had been featured on cover stories of magazines. I loved being an entrepreneur in aviation and sharing the same passions amongst my clients. Life was fulfilling and full of joy.
Then in 2007, I lost my boyfriend, Kevin, in the Blue Angels crash at MCAS Beaufort. My heart had never known such immense grief.”
In 2008, I traveled to Virginia Beach for my Dad’s fighter pilot reunion and had the magnificent experience of being a Distinguished Visitor, catching the wire, and being catapulted off the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier. I yearned to be closer to Kevin in some way and felt compelled to help enhance the safety and comfort of Naval Aviators, as well as those that keep them flying.
I closed my business and moved across country to work for ADS, Inc., and haven’t looked back. The week of ADS Warrior Expo West in San Diego will mark a decade since losing Kevin and will be a silent struggle for me. I know I am where I am supposed to be and the responsibilities that ADS bestows upon me are meant to be mine.
Every day, I am blessed to work for such a proactive company that allows me to interact with end users who need everything from improved gear to obsolete aircraft parts, as well as their Program Offices that approve equipment and transactions, and N98 who essentially pays for them.
I have a fire in my soul to do my small part in keeping our military well-equipped and bring them home safely to their loved ones. ADS truly has been the fuel to keep my passion alive and I am grateful to be here.”
About Kara Swensen
ADS, Inc. Senior Regional Account Manager
NAVAIR & CNIC Lead
Kara Swensen became a licensed pilot at age 18 and graduated from Arizona State University with a B.S. in Aeronautical Technology. Kara’s passion for defying gravity first began in her hometown in Florida when, alongside her fifth-grade classmates, she witnessed the Challenger spaceship fail in mid-air. Her quest for understanding this catastrophe coupled with her family’s shared passion for aviation marked the beginning of a lifelong quest to make flying safe. She’s an entrepreneur and innovator, owning an aviation company prior to joining the ranks at ADS. As Naval Aviation & CNIC Lead, Kara works closely with the Navy to procure the absolute best equipment while utilizing the most competitive contract vehicles to save valuable funding. Her passion for the safety and comfort of our Naval Aviators, the maintainers who support them, and their aircraft is unparalleled.