Natalie Kelley is a woman with a résumé full of goals, past achievements, and dreams for the future – and she is not nearly finished. Her path to adventure started as many often do; a small town, a big spirit, and a thirst for whatever life threw her way. Natalie grew up outside Nashville, Tenn. with a Navy-pilot father and a private pilot-licensed uncle who taught himself aerobatics, amazingly by reading books on the subject. Between the two men and their love of flying, Natalie was inspired to have a career in aviation herself, although it would be several decades before she pursued those dreams and began the journey to what would eventually become her greatest passion.
“My father was in the Navy – eventually flying for FedEx after his retirement from the military – and because we grew up in a small town, everyone seemed to sort of be in awe of him and thought he had such a cool job. I thought, ‘I want to do something that others can aspire to as well.’” Natalie tells me about her childhood, about growing up and getting to fly in an airplane with her uncle while he performed loops and spins, welcoming her father home from trips, and taking little hops across cities on the weekends to pancake breakfasts. “I felt like I had found something unique that really intrigued and inspired me, and I decided that one day, I’d have that too.” However, as she got older, her route to becoming a pilot was slightly diverted.
After graduating from college and obtaining a degree in business, Natalie married and began her family, raising three sons and putting her own dreams on the back burner. Nevertheless, Natalie hadn’t forgotten her love of flying. “I made a bucket list, when the boys were younger, of all the things that I wanted to do in the future, whether for myself or with my family, and throughout the years, slowly but surely, things on that list were checked off,” except of course, Natalie earning her wings. As her sons grew older and became more self-sufficient, Natalie revisited that old bucket list, and after twenty years of waiting, she was determined to make her goal a reality.
The family business supplied enough money for Natalie to begin taking flying lessons, and she threw herself headlong into studying and practicing, excited to wake up every day and to finally follow her passion. She was able to stay close to home, taking lessons near Cincinnati, and she hit the ground running. “I knew that if I didn’t make it a solid commitment that it could all fall apart and I’d let life get in the way again.” So she stayed the course, finally making time for herself after years of devotion to her family. “It felt so good to finally do something for me, that was just mine, that I had complete control over. I almost forgot what it was like to just do something that made me happy without worrying about what would happen if I stopped playing such a role as a homemaker and branched outside of that role.” As Natalie continued in her new career path, she was drawn to the idea of helping other women go after their own dreams. And so, FlyGIRL was born.
FlyGIRL is a non-profit organization created to assist women who want to pursue their love of travel and flying, whether through personal stories and pictures, access to a community of like-minded people, or with financial assistance. FlyGIRL also has its own merchandise, which Natalie created as a way to raise scholarship funding to sponsor women because, “Well, I just couldn’t find anything cute related to being a pilot, and girls like cute stuff!”
Offering an array of hats, hoodies, bags, and shirts, Natalie created her logo, which is proudly displayed on each item to advertise her business, which she sells through Sporty’s Pilot Shop. “It’s hard sometimes, because you’re in a very male-dominated space, so it can be intimidating to step outside the box and try to find ways to make your presence known and be taken seriously.” Luckily for Natalie, her ambition and courage paid off. Her first scholarship was worth $5,000, and since then she has raised over $20,000 through fundraisers and product sales, offering the money to women who are aiming toward their goals but may not have the financial means to achieve them. “I was in a place where I was able to afford my dream, and I wanted to give that to someone else if I could.”
FlyGIRL has a large social media presence on Facebook and Instagram, and often has contest giveaways with donated items from fellow aviation companies. Staying active online has been a large part of reaching her audience, but Natalie isn’t finished yet, even branching into a Youtube channel called FlyGIRL Kelley. On her channel is an entertaining series called Cockpits & Cocktails, featuring interviews with women in the industry about their careers, travel stories, and what led them onto their current paths. “This is only the beginning,” she says. “I’m so excited for my future.”
What does that future look like? “Well, of course, not only do I intend to continue with my organization and fundraising, but I really want to eventually be a pilot full time. Whether that’s with an airline or an individual, I’m focusing on gaining hours and building on the foundation I already have. I want to keep this going, because I know it’s a really good thing and it’s helping a lot of people, including myself.” After years of wishing about something that at times seemed like a far off reality, Natalie is a perfect example of just how good it feels when dreams finally do come true.