Memory of former Kent State student soars to new heights

Debbie Kukwa prepares to take the first flight in the new aircraft named after her daughter Nicole “Nikki” Kukwa on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. Nikki passed away from Leukemia in 2006 during her senior year in Kent State’s aeronautics program.

Jenna Kuczkowski

At a very young age, Nicole “Nikki” Kukwa knew she wanted to be a pilot.

“When she was 12 and went on her first flight and got to see the cockpit she was like, ‘I want to be a pilot’ and that was it; It never wavered, never,” Debbie Kukwa, Nicole’s mother, said.

Nicole was a senior aviation major at Kent State in 2006 when she passed away after battling Leukemia for almost two years.

Now, the Kent State Aeronautics program has named the new Cessna Skyhawk aircraft they received “Nikki.”

Debbie Anstine said Nicole was determined, smart and very energetic.

“She was so energetic that she actually used to make me a little crazy because she wanted to do everything all at once and I always joked like, ‘When are you just going to stay home and clean your room or just hangout with us?’” Debbie Anstine said.  

Debbie Anstine said Nicole was always highly involved in aeronautics and was a leader in many ways and she was very staunch about women being pilots and had a dream of opening a flight school for women.

In her time at Kent State, Nicole was also instrumental in establishing the Kent State’s chapter of Women in Aviation, also known as the KSU Flying Black Squirrels. The chapter is part of an international club whose purpose is to, “build a strong bond with other women in our field, linking us to better opportunities to succeed in aviation,” according to their website.

The Skyhawk was donated to Kent State after the school was named a 2016 Top Hawk University. Only four universities nationwide received this honor. Each school was awarded a Skyhawk aircraft to use for classes and training as well as promotions.

During the aircraft’s presentation, Robert Sines, interim dean of the College of Applied Engineering, Sustainability and Technology, said that when the college opened up naming rights for the plane to alumni and friends, they experienced an overwhelming response to name the plane Nikki, who passed away before achieving her dream of being a career-pilot.

Debbie Anstine said when she found out about the naming, she couldn’t believe it.

“Now the plane will be up in the air in her name and the thought of it gives me goosebumps,” Debbie Anstine said. “She’ll be up in the air, which is where she always wanted to be.”

In addition to being used in typical flight training operations, Maureen McFarland, the aeronautics program director, said the new aircraft will be used to compete in the 2016 Air Race Classic to conduct outreach programs and provide exploration flights during a three-day aviation careers education summer camp for girls.

The Air Race Classic is an all-women’s air race where teams of at least two women compete for four days to fly the nearly 2,400 mile course in the shortest amount of time possible. The 2016 race will begin in Prescott, Arizona on June 21 and end on June 24 in Daytona Beach, Florida.

This year, the new “Nikki” aircraft will be flown by 2015 aeronautics graduate Carissa Marion, who is now a flight instructor at Kent State, as well as sophomore aeronautics major Jaila Manga.

Nikki will begin to make two to three outreach flight programs starting the second week of March, weather permitting. McFarland said Youngstown, Ohio will be Nikki’s first stop, followed by a trip to Pittsburgh at the end of March.

“There’s a group out in Youngstown called Inspiring Minds and Nikki will fly out there to give a presentation to some high-school-aged students about aviation,” McFarland said. “They can sit in the plane, they’ll get a lesson on pre-flight and try to get them interested in aeronautics.”

The women’s aeronautics summer camp has taken place annually in Nicole’s honor since 2010 and provides an opportunity for young girls to learn about aeronautics, the programs at Kent State as well as offering an exploration flight on the last day of the camp.

“It just seems like (Nikki’s) legacy keeps building and it keeps continuing to bring people together and encouraging engagement in the aeronautics program,” said Jessica Tremayne-Farkas, who is in charge of public relations for the College of Applied Engineering, Sustainability and Technology.

To stay up to date on Nikki’s journey across the country to promote aeronautics, follow the tag #NikkiTheTopHawk on Twitter.

Jenna Kuczkowski is a College of Applied Engineering reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].