Pink… It’s been Erin Kelley’s favorite color “since childhood. Her uniform – t -shirt, hat, and headset – are all pink. When she began working with Randy Ball, he gave her orange t-shirts to wear during the airshows. But for Erin, a natural redhead, orange just wouldn’t do. She needed pink! A few months later, Randy surprised her with pink shirts. She has even been known to use pink zip ties on her charge … Randy’s MiG-17F, a colorful addition he has (begrudgingly) accepted.
Erin was born and raised in the Tyler, Texas area. She remembers going to watch airplanes at Tyler Pounds Field (TYR) as a child, she and her sister being glued to the window as they got close to the airport, then watching air traffic from the roof of the car. The military aircraft would sometimes be so low she could actually read the numbers painted on them. One year, her parents took her to the cafe at the airport for her birthday, so she could eat and watch airplanes. But it wasn’t meant to be, that afternoon, there were no aircraft flying.
Sometime during her senior year of high school, the small-town girl decided she needed to go out and experience more of life. She enlisted in the Navy, signing the paperwork before her 18th birthday. Soon after graduation, she headed to boot camp. After all those years of watching airplanes, Erin finally got to fly. Her first flight took her to boot camp, leaving Texas behind, and on to the next chapter of her life.
Erin always knew she wanted to do something with airplanes. While in boot camp, she picked aviation as her career path but was still undesignated upon graduation, so she was assigned shore duty at NAS Norfolk, Virginia. While there, she picked aviation electronics as her field, got approved for school, and was soon on her way to NAS Pensacola, Florida. After completing avionics school, she spent most of her Navy career working on the F/A-18 Hornet.
After fourteen years, Erin decided to leave the Navy. She wanted to finish college, so returned home to Texas. She found a job that utilized her skillset, installing avionics on General Aviation aircraft, everything from Cessna 150s to Citation jets. As if she wasn’t busy enough with work and school, she also volunteered at Habitat House. A friend from the Navy volunteered at the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum at the Tyler airport, and the museum could use Erin’s talents. She asked Erin if she would like to get involved.
It was through her work at the museum that Erin met Randy Ball. He shared hangar space with the museum, and one day asked if she would take a look at his jet, a beautiful MiG- 17F. Randy was also looking for a crew chief that could go on the road with him for his airshow demonstrations. After Randy got to know her, Erin seemed like the right person for the job, and she started working with him in 2013. The two get along so well they’re almost like brother and sister. Erin’s middle name is Mae, and Randy uses it as her call sign, usually referring to her as “Erin Mae”.
There are not too many female crew chiefs in either the military or civilian world. The number of women working on jets is small, with only a handful on the airshow circuit. Erin can be counted in that handful. As Randy’s plane captain, she is responsible for preflighting the MiG and assisting Randy as he straps in and starts up. After she launches him, she watches the demo, usually from the pit area. When the demo is done, Erin recovers Randy and the MiG. They talk about any issues during the demo, she does a post-flight inspection, checks fluids, and fuels the jet. She does most of the work on the MiG to keep it show worthy. As she says, “The MiG doesn’t have much in the way of avionics, but much of the airframe and engine work very similar to the F/ A-18:’ The pair have a busy airshow schedule, on the road each year for 18-22 shows. At home Erin is busy with her full-time job and maintaining the MiG, but still volunteers at the museum when she has some time. Her goal after leaving the Navy was to finish school…she did just that, completing her Associates in Electronics and Bachelors in Aeronautics.
At one point, Erin thought she wanted to learn to fly, but for now it’s not on her radar. ‘Tm fine just being JN an airplane;’ she says. She has flown in several warbirds and shared her passion with her family. Her brother received a B-25 flight as a gift from her, and her niece got her first flight a few years ago. Her family is “amazed” at what she has accomplished. My guess is they’re also pretty proud of her.
Erin loves working on airplanes and traveling to new places, which makes the airshow circuit the perfect job for her. Even when she’s home she doesn’t stay home, she takes off in her’ RV whenever she has the chance. Airshows also present her the opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life, including talking to World War II and other veterans or kids. She loves it, and hopes that what she does will inspire kids to dream and follow those dreams to reality.