Captain Kendall - "Kiki'' - Culler got the flying bug when her private pilot father encouraged her to take a $20 test flight as a youngster.

She's never lost her passion for aviation, but being a woman made it hard to break into airlines. Even though she had run her own small operation lugging freight around the Hawaiian islands, she found it tough to get a break.

''I'd gone places where they were crumpling up my resume as I was walking through the door,'' she says today.

That changed in 1984, when she got an interview with Hawaiian Airlines.


''I remember when I got interviewed for the job by the chief pilot, I walked through the door and he said 'we love women pilots'. I think it's because Hawaiian had good success with women pilots and recognised their value.''

Five years earlier, the airline had made United States history by operating the first commercial flight with an all-woman crew. Today, 83 of its 800 or so pilots are women.

Culler has risen through the ranks to number nine on the airline's pilot roster and right now her favourite office is in the left-hand seat of an Airbus A330. She's looking forward to the airline's next big aircraft acquisition, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner early next decade.

Her seniority puts her high on the list to pick routes, including Auckland, which she loves because the long layovers give her time to see the country. She is also looking forward to Hawaiian's new US mainland services, including Boston next year.

Culler says that while the number of women pilots is rising, it is still tough being a woman in a male dominated industry.

''It is still more challenging - I won't deny it. Our joke used to be, you had to be twice as good as the men to be considered half as good,'' she says.

''I think it has become better now because many of the male pilots have flown with women pilots and they've had women instructors. It's more the norm.''

During the 1980s, when women were encouraged to try for traditionally male jobs, many spent a lot of money and time getting qualifications.


''Part of the reason why the percentage of women is still relatively small is that there was a certain period of time when you would go and get all your ratings at quite a bit of cost and quite a bit of effort, and nobody would hire you,'' she says.

''Women quit trying - there was a real lag for a while.''

She says the current pilot shortage will encourage more women to get into airlines. Unlike other jobs, the irregular hours and relatively lengthy spells off after flights - especially long haul trips - made it easier to raise her two children.

''I think raising a family as a woman pilot is unique because our hours are more flexible than a nine-to-five job, '' says Culler, who nicknamed herself Kiki as a child.

It's also a job where equal pay is guaranteed.

''There are not many jobs in the US where it is never an issue to make the same amount of money as a man - it's almost unheard of. It's really brilliant to be treated as an equal,'' she says.

• The Herald travelled to Honolulu courtesy of Hawaiian Airlines