Capt. Kendall "Kiki" Culler spent much of her childhood with her face pressed against the backseat window of her father’s Apache twin-engine aircraft, watching life, time and the Hawaiian Islands pass below. She grew up in and around planes, which set the stage for an exciting career that included a 38-year stint as one of Hawaiian Airlines’ most celebrated pilots.
On Saturday, July 16, Culler retired as an Airbus A330 captain and the most senior pilot on the carrier’s 900-plus-pilot roster. The day was akin to a holiday, with employees across the company gathering for her last flight, HA89, to honor her career. They gave out cake, gifted fresh lei to Culler and her crew, and made speeches at the gate and on the plane. When Culler’s flight landed in Honolulu from Boston, guests shook her hand and wished her well as they deplaned, and long-time friends and colleagues welcomed her with open arms at the gate.
"This is a sad time for me," she reflected when asked about her retirement. "I don't think anyone on the outside could understand what we have at Hawaiian. We have so much camaraderie, love and respect for one another. I wish there could have been 40 flight attendants on my last flight because I love them all and grew up with them. We've been flying together for 38 years!"
Culler’s love for aviation stemmed from her father, a pilot who operated ground mapping flights for the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s geophysics department. When she was 18 and first expressed interest in learning to fly, he pulled out a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet and told her to sign up for a demo at the local flight school. "The kid who used to wash my dad's plane was a flight instructor, so I went to him. At some point in my lessons, I remember he asked if I wanted to be a commercial airline pilot. I laughed and said, 'Oh no, I just want to get a little airplane and fly around the islands now and then.' But once you take that demo flight and feel that first spark of passion, there's no stopping you. You’re hooked," she said.
When Culler was 20, she had earned the required ratings for commercial flight, though she faced a challenge she hadn’t expected: finding work. "All the local airlines –Mid Pacific Air, Aloha Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines – were in a financial slump, so no one was hiring pilots. Many of the people I learned to fly with, who I am still friends with, became air traffic controllers during that time because there were no jobs."
Aside from finding work in a lackluster job market, Culler was also competing to break into a role once traditionally held by men.
Culler used the downtime to work towards her mechanic's license at night school, where she later met a furloughed Aloha Airlines pilot who ran Honolulu's Air Ambulance. Impressed by her work, he soon hired her to operate the Air Ambulance’s emergency and charter services.
After several years of operating the Air Ambulance, Culler, 23 years old at the time, started a private charter service with a Cessna 402 that she convinced her father to purchase from the Royal Hawaiian Air Service. She fixed up the plane, painted the exterior, reupholstered the interior, and launched her own Neighbor Island charter company that she named Ambassador Air Charters. "I picked the name because it sounded fancy and would be listed at the top of the phone book. I was the janitor, airplane washer, reservationist, pilot, and mechanic. It was a lot of work, but it was quite the adventure," she said.
Culler laughed when she reflected on the passengers' shock upon learning their charter captain was a young woman. "I remember I had one group of eight fishermen who wanted to go from Kahului to Kona for a fishing trip. I showed up in Maui, swung the door open, and jumped onto the tarmac. They looked stunned and scared, but they got on my plane,” she recalled. “You see, normally, you almost have to pay people to read the emergency briefing cards, but when I closed the door and turned around, I saw them all with the briefing cards in their laps. By the time I got into Kona, they had loved me, and I had a wonderful time. That reaction was typical for me. I was only 23 years old, so no wonder they were afraid!"
Her business took off, and she came to charter private flights for celebrities visiting Hawaiʻi, including Richard Pryor, George Harrison, Barbara Streisand, Herb Alpert, Jon Peters and The Beach Boys.
In April 1984, three years after starting Ambassador Air Charters, Culler was offered a position at Hawaiian Airlines, a long-time leader in welcoming women into the cockpit, and closed her business. She became among the company’s first female pilots, including Maureen Barnes, LaDonna Shea, and Sherry Emminger-Dey. In 1985, she joined Emminger-Dey in becoming the first two female pilots to operate jets at Hawaiian Airlines.
(Editor’s note: Hawaiian Airlines continues to lead in employing female pilots among U.S. carriers, making up approximately nine percent of its pilot-force.)
"For me and Sherry to start flying the DC-9s was probably the most significant thing to happen; none of those pilots had ever flown with women before," Culler said. "The men would later be in the pilot lounge, and they would be grumbling about us in the jets. I remember one pilot, who was well-respected and became a friend and mentor of mine, once interrupted them and said, 'She can fly circles around you!' Having other pilots advocate that way for me and Sherry helped, and I learned a lot from those guys."
Culler spent the next 38 years focused on her career while breaking barriers in aviation. She recalled several times when, despite wearing a pilot's uniform, people assumed she was a flight attendant or a skycap. Once, a passenger asked to change their flight when they learned a female was captaining their plane. But Culler relished when parents pointed her out to their children while walking through the airport and enjoyed the opportunity of being a guest's first female captain and giving them the best experience. Over the years, she became a mentor to other female pilots struggling with overcoming lingering gender stereotypes.
"It was a difficult industry then and still can be in some ways. It has certainly improved, and Hawaiian Airlines has a lot to be proud of," she said. "My advice to other women is to be confident and competent, no matter what. You can't have a chip on your shoulder and let frustrations hold you back."
Before her retirement, she liked to fly long-haul routes like New York, Boston, and Sydney (her favorite) and share her manaʻo (wisdom) with younger pilots in the cockpit.
"If I've learned anything in my career, there's absolutely nothing like experience. Our new pilots are sharp as tacks, but there's nothing like the knowledge that comes with years and years of experience. That's why I think it is sad when pilots retire; it's like losing a whole encyclopedia of flight knowledge," she said.
As Culler enters a new chapter in her life, she knows that flying will always be a part of her narrative. "We have a small plane, so I'm going to continue flying. I don't know how I'd feel if I didn't have access to a plane. But other than that, I'm still waiting to see what happens!”
Reflecting on her time at Hawaiian Airlines, Culler said, "Being a pilot for Hawaiian has been the best career. I was getting paid to live in the best place, to fly for the best airline, to work with the best people, to operate the best equipment and to transport our guests to the best places.”
She added, "When you retire at Hawaiian Airlines, you're not just ending a job…you're leaving behind some incredible relationships. I don't think you can find the same sense of community at any other airline."
Join us in recognizing the incredible career of Capt. Kendall "Kiki" Culler and offering a warm mahalo for 38 years of service to Hawaiian Airlines.
“Few words can sum up why Kiki is so special. No matter how hard life is sometimes, she keeps her head up and keeps smiling. She is an inspiration, a role model, a great pilot and a beautiful soul. I am happy for this well-deserved new chapter in her life, but I am very sad that our everyday paths will no longer cross.” – Sylvie Benjamin, Airbus A330 first officer
“Kiki has a perpetually positive attitude and spreads the Aloha spirit amongst everyone she encounters. I met her as a teenager and have worked with her since the mid-1970s, including at the Air Ambulance and now Hawaiian Airlines. Kiki has had a blemish-free career and can be very proud of the legacy she is leaving for not just the female pilots, but all our pilots.” – Peter Clark, system chief pilot
“Kiki is an inspiration to all the young female pilots out at Hawaiian Airlines. She is kind, strong, inclusive, and a joy to be around. I look up to her as I know many others at Hawaiian do. She will be greatly missed but I’m confident we will see her aboard our flights as she makes the most of the next chapter in her life.” – Sarah Hunter, Airbus A330 first officer
“I LOVED flying with Capt. Kiki Culler! It’s hard to believe she is retiring. She has the energy of an 18-year-old! What makes Kiki stand out apart from others is her infectious smile and warm and kind personality. She is sharp, quick-witted and hilarious! Kiki not only commands a crew of a heavy Airbus A330, but she also commands the room that you would be so lucky to share with her.” – Susie Koshiyama, Airbus A330 first officer
“I met Capt. Kiki Culler for the first time when she was deadheading from Kahului, Maui and I was a first officer on the Boeing 717. She had a commanding presence because of her height and looked sharp in her uniform with an air of confidence. She was also incredibly warm and gracious. At the end of that flight, she thanked us for the ride, and I didn't see her again until several years later when we flew together on the Airbus A330. What I've learned from Kiki is that a good captain is decisive. When those decisions affect others, the greater task is to make everyone feel part of a team with a common goal. Kiki always managed to do that. I'm thankful and honored to have flown with such an accomplished person.” – Jennifer Oka, Airbus A330 first officer
"She always has the warmest, most welcoming smile, and is a great mentor and friend. Kiki exemplifies great leadership. She is strong, competent pilot with fantastic people skills. One of the best!" – Sara O'Rourke, Airbus A321neo captain
“I just want to say Kiki is a wonderfully naturally gifted pilot. Not only are her stick and rudder skills well above average, but she is also so very professional in all aspects of the way she operates. What makes her different is that, despite her seniority and level of experience, she really isn’t just a pilot…she’s a lovely person who just so happens to fly airplanes! When you fly with her, she sets the best tone, everything flows, and the whole crew works so well together. I have always looked up to Kiki; she’s the kind of captain I hope to be one day. (And on a personal note, she is just a beautiful spirit.) – Trevor Smith, Airbus A330 captain
“Kiki always had a smile on her face and brought a pleasant, positive attitude to work. What I most liked about her was her professionalism and how well she communicated to the crew and the passengers. I recall working on the Boeing 767 when she was the captain, and both her co-pilots were female pilots. It was a first for me to see and experience on that day which was so cool to see. She’s a special lady who deserves the recognition and acknowledgment for achieving what she has done and may her final flight be a memorable one for her to cherish forever.” – Frank Stevenson, flight attendant
“When I was a flight attendant many years ago, Capt. Kiki was flying the DC-9, and I saw how she set an example of crew resource management. She paved the way for my future as a captain on the Boeing 717 and has paved the way for many of us female pilots. Aloha Capt. Kiki! Wishing you all the best in your retirement ahead! We will miss you and hope to see you onboard soon as you jet off to new adventures!” – Suzanne Williams, Airbus A330 first officer
“Anytime I saw Kiki's name on my schedule, I was excited, and I knew I was going to have a great day. She's confident and extremely competent. She takes the time to talk to everyone in her crew (including flight attendants, mechanics, and dispatch) and makes sure everyone feels like their suggestions are important, which makes everyone eager to be a part of her team. She can adapt to any situation with a smile on her face. Kiki's style of leadership is something I try to imitate.” – Clarice Young, Airbus A330 captain