There's nothing girly about Danielle Troll's Piper Cherokee Lance, except maybe the name of her company: Zita Air.
Zita literally means little girl. Troll chose the name for her company, which delivers groceries and passengers to Bristol Bay communities, because of the Italian Saint Zita.
"She was a servant who set an example to her co-workers and even her master because of her hard work ethic," she wrote in an email. "Her perseverance through mistreatment was encouraging to me when I was going through a similar time. She saw her job as a servant as a task assigned to her by God, and did her best at it as if she was working for Him."
In March, Troll made her first charter run, delivering folks to the winter carnival in Kohkanok. It wasn't a long flight, but getting ready for takeoff was a yearslong process. She grew up in Anchorage, a second generation Alaskan. There were no pilots in her family, and she didn't have any background in aviation. But when she was 17, she decided she wanted to be a pilot.
"The question in my head was: Can women be pilots? It just hit me, out of nowhere, and there's no aviation in my family," Troll said. "I really didn't know much about aviation. And it's funny, 'cause usually you hear the stories of, 'Oh when Timmy was 8 years old he flew the plane with his dad,' and that's not how it was for me."
She found out, that yes, women can be pilots. So she went to the University of Alaska Anchorage for a degree in aviation technology, where she learned to fly, and about the ins and outs of aviation businesses. While studying, she took a job for an airline servicing Bristol Bay called Kamikaze.
"Joel Jacko was flying groceries to the Nushagak area," Troll said. "And I started working for him shopping. It was really cool timing because everything I learned at school I could do. Everything stuck in my mind and I got to apply what I learned, so that was really cool."
She got to know the region a little better through her husband and his family. And though Kamikaze changed hands and names a few times, and Troll worked elsewhere, the region stayed in her mind.
So last fall, she bought what used to be Kamikaze, with an eye toward expanding the grocery delivery service to haul passengers, too.
"The goal in that was to start being able to fly passengers, and get my 135 status, which just happened last week actually, we finally finished all the paperwork," Troll said in mid-March.
Troll still does the grocery business that Kamikaze was based on, mostly shopping at Costco and then delivering the groceries, and also does expediting within Anchorage if people just need things delivered in-town and aren't there to do it. Now that she's certified, she can also carry passengers. That service is on-demand. Instead of having a regular schedule, she tries to work out flights based on interest.
Troll, who lives in Anchorage, flies to Kvichak, Lake Iliamna and upriver Nushagak communities, based on demand. She enjoyed flying to many of those communities while working for others, too.
"Mostly my funny moments are people commenting on how I'm a woman pilot," she said. "Once a man from New Stu said, 'Holy cups, I get to fly with a beautiful woman!' It was really funny."
Although there have been plenty of difficulties in running her own business and expanding it right off the bat, Troll said the connection to her customers makes it worth it.
"It's different than flying for a big airline, 'cause in that case you don't get to know your customers, it's just a bunch of different people," she said. "Seeing a customer satisfied because I brought their birthday cake in time for their daughter or they just got a box of fresh produce or they had a good flight or something, that's really rewarding. There's so many factors that can prevent that from happening that aren't really in my control, like weather, so it just makes it more epic when it works out."
Every passenger and every person waiting on cargo knows how frustrating weather can be. Aside from the mountains of paperwork necessary to getting certified for passengers, Troll said weather has been her biggest challenge this winter. Sometimes she has had more groceries to deliver than good weather days to deliver them on. But even that is just part of the job, she said.
"If everything is easy all the time, you're not learning or improving," she said. "Every day I want to learn to be a better person and get better at what I do."
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly suggested that Troll's first charter flight was in April. It was in March.