- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

HOUSTON, Pa. (AP) - Jessica Kanellos is a Whirly-Girl.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in business management, Kanellos chased a newfound passion for flying helicopters.

“That was it,” said the 2005 graduate of Chartiers-Houston High School of her first ride in a helicopter while attending college. “I called my dad and said, ‘Dad, I’m really sorry, but I think I want to be a helicopter pilot.’”

With the support of her father, Bill Banas of Canonsburg, and her mother, Linda Gratz of Houston, Kanellos turned her attention from a job in human resources to a career in the sky.

After graduation from Mercyhurst University in Erie, she quickly earned her wings, securing both commercial pilot and flight instructor licenses from Bristow Academy in Titusville, Fla., one of the premier schools for helicopter flight training in the country.

Kanellos was hired by the school as a certified flight instructor and certified flight instrument instructor and now promotes her passion for flight as the secretary of Whirly-Girls International, a nonprofit with a mission to promote women in the helicopter industry.

Recently promoted, she will take on the role of vice president of membership.

“Jessica’s overall competence, skill and caring attitude were apparent in her work as an instructor at Bristow Academy. I was delighted to have her as a team leader … where she excelled in a range of capacities,” said Laura McColm, immediate past president of Whirly-Girls International and chief flight instructor at Bristow Academy, in an email.

“When the board of directors of the Whirly-Girls had an opening for a secretary, I immediately thought of Jessica.”

Kanellos isn’t the only pilot in her family. Her husband, Nikolaos, is a helicopter emergency medical service pilot.

“We’re a helicopter family,” Kanellos said.

While Kanellos has taken a hiatus from flying to support her husband’s career, a family move to Florida this week will put her back in the driver’s - er, pilot’s - seat. She plans to work again as an instructor or for a helicopter tour company.

“This is the view from my office,” she said of flying 1,500 feet in the air.

Kanellos met Nikolaos - or “Nikos,” as she calls him - while she was a student and he an instructor at Bristow.

Born and raised in Athens, Greece, Nikos enlisted in the armed forces at 18 years old, a mandatory requirement for Greek men. He was trained as a helicopter maintenance technician, learning as much as he could about the craft he wanted to fly since he was a little boy.

In 2009, after researching pilot programs, he moved more than 5,000 miles to Orlando, Fla., to attend Bristow.

“I wanted the best training I could get for my money,” he said.

Nikos uprooted his life, having no family or friends in the United States. Then he met Kanellos.

“We became friends, working together as instructor and student, and fell in love,” he said.

When his visa expired, Nikos had to move back to Greece. He and Kanellos remained in contact, mostly via Skype. Then Kanellos planned a trip to see him.

“In Greece, to have a girlfriend come and visit, it has to be serious,” he said.

His homecoming was short-lived. Nikos returned to the United States just a few months later to earn his European piloting license, which Bristow offers.

The pair continued their relationship while working as instructors, contemplating their next move.

In October 2012, they found out Kanellos was pregnant. Soon after, they were married in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“Life kind of figured it out for us,” Nikos said.

Kanellos continued to work until she was nearly 8 months pregnant.

“Everyone, including the doctor, said it was OK,” Nikos said. “I worried about the vibration, the noise, the fuel and the fumes.”

Nikos’ worst fears were realized when Kanellos, at six months pregnant, was involved in an accident.

While in flight with a student, the helicopter they were in experienced a “catastrophic engine failure.”

Kanellos and the student were not injured in the accident.

Because of the extensive emergency training pilots receive, Kanellos said, “It felt like a maneuver.”

She said she hates to tell people about the accident, because of the belief that helicopters are dangerous.

“We were able to put (the helicopter) down,” she said. “We wouldn’t have been able to land with a plane.”

While Kanellos downplays the severity of the incident, Nikos said it shook him up.

“I almost got a heart attack,” he said.

Seeing the broken helicopter on the highway was a reality check for the couple, and Kanellos agreed to reduce her airtime.

Son Eryx arrived safely, followed two years later by Nikolaos, now 4 months old.

In that time, the family relocated from Florida to New Jersey, then to Pennsylvania. They’ve been staying with Kanellos’ mother in Houston, preparing for a move to St. Augustine, Fla.

“We’re going back to where we started,” Nikos said.

He will continue work piloting a medical helicopter. Kanellos, who recently won an aircraft ditching course scholarship from Whirly-Girls, plans to earn her flight recertification and continue promoting women in her field with the international organization.

The number of female helicopter pilots has grown dramatically since the organization formed with 13 members in 1955. Now, at 1,900 members, the group continues to help women forge connections in the male-dominated field.

Kanellos loves her work with Whirly-Girls, but is eager to get back into the air.

“I’m really thankful this is the card we were dealt,” Kanellos said. “We have a lot to be thankful for.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1WScR3c

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Information from: Observer-Reporter, http://www.observer-reporter.com

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