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The weather was perfect for flying, almost unheard of for a January morning in southeast Michigan, and Stevie Triesenberg didn’t want to waste it.
She climbed out of bed, pulled on a sweatsuit and winter parka, and drove to the small hangar at Ann Arbor Municipal Airport where she keeps her four-seat, single-engine 1952 Beechcraft C35 Bonanza.
“Had to take advantage of it,” she said later, narrating the experience in a video for her 1.3 million followers on TikTok, the wildly-popular social media app.
“It’s really important for pilots to stay proficient, so that we’re safe,” added Triesenberg, 23, a software engineer, licensed flight instructor, and general aviation pilot also known as @planegirl, one of the most-watched influencers in TikTok’s thriving aviation subculture.
“It’s important to keep my airplane’s engine running,” she said. “So I try to fly once a week or so.”
Triesenberg had cameras rolling for most of the day, capturing scenes with an iPhone and a pair of GoPros as she pulled the Bonanza out of its hangar with a towbar and flew high over the snow-dusted Michigan countryside.
“It’s crazy how this has happened,” she said in an interview with Skies. “If you told student-pilot-me that I would have 1.3 million followers on TikTok and be flying a Bonanza, I probably wouldn’t believe you.”
Though Triesenberg’s massive following on TikTok arrived quickly — she began posting shortly before the pandemic and had a million followers in less than a year — it’s not entirely surprising.
Aviation has been a magnet for audiences on every social platform, from YouTube to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. In hindsight, at least, it seems natural this would also be the case on TikTok, the video app of choice for younger Millennials and Generation Z.
Still, the pandemic has likely accelerated the growth of TikTok’s avgeek adopters. During lockdowns, commercial pilots suddenly had thousands of idle off-duty hours to fill.
At the same time, millions of teenagers and 20-somethings were confined to their homes, bored stiff and looking to their phones for distractions and entertainment.
It wasn’t inevitable the two groups would intersect, but when they did the impact was considerable. Aviation TikTok quickly became a unique and vibrant showcase for the lives of pilots, and a source of inspiration for kids who may never have considered aviation as a career.
“I was trying to find a good use of my time,” said Brittany Danko (@pilot_brit), 25, a first officer for a regional U.S. airline who flies the Embraer 175.
“I was flying less than 90 percent of my normal flights . . . and I started thinking, ‘This could be a really good opportunity to reach out to the younger generation, and promote women in aviation.’”
Danko began posting day-in-the-life videos in early 2020, later adding one that explained how she got her private pilot’s license in high school and became a commercial airline pilot by age 22.
Since then, her videos have focused mainly on answering frequently asked questions about a pilot’s life, and other questions directly from viewers — everything from how much money a pilot makes, to what the stripes on their uniforms mean, and everything in between.
“What inspires me the most is the amount of private messages I get saying, ‘Hey, you inspired me. What courses should I take? What’s my next move? What do you think about the career progression?’” said Danko.
“I get probably 10 to 15 messages a day like that. And I do my best to reply to everybody that I can. . . . I’m happy to help any young person get into aviation, because it’s my love.”
Several more airline pilots have taken a similar tack, answering questions, critiquing airports from a pilot’s perspective, and producing the same kinds of random comedy and lip sync videos that are popular in other TikTok genres.
Dealing with trolls and toxicity is part of the package for TikTok influencers, just as it is for influencers on any other social platform. Female pilots frequently receive sexist messages, nit-picky critiques, and romantic advances from commenters emboldened by their relative anonymity.
“I’ve never had to deal with sexism at work,” said Danko. “I’ve always flown with some of the most amazing pilots. The passengers, for the most part, are really extraordinarily kind and say positive things. It’s just amazing what comes out behind a keyboard.”
Though most TikTokkers don’t make a huge amount of money from their videos, some do.
Forbes reported in August 2020 the platform’s top six earners each made more than $1 million in the previous year, with Addison Rae Easterling (@addisonre) receiving an estimated $5 million in earnings.
In some cases, there are also opportunities for lucrative brand partnerships. But for many small businesses, TikTok is simply another content marketing platform that helps them stay relevant.
That’s in part the motivation for Jack Parrish (@jakkparr), 25, a Dallas-based first officer for a U.S. regional airline who is also co-owner and CEO of the Parrish Aviation flight school.
“To be relevant you have to be on social media, especially looking to the future,” said Parrish, a fourth-generation pilot who has roughly 59,000 followers on TikTok.
“I have seen quite a few people coming over to the school from the @jakkparr page, which I love because it’s there to help people who are interested in aviation.
“If they’re local, and they do want to really take it seriously, then there’s a practical way that they can be helped even more than just advice — they can come out and see if they like the school. We have students that are from TikTok that are active in our school.”
The pilots of TikTok are not saying much that people who already work in aviation will think of as revolutionary. But to non-aviation audiences, their content is not obvious, perfunctory or run-of-the-mill — it’s fresh, enlightening, and inspiring.
And for many of the pilots of TikTok, that’s the entire point.
“If I convince one person to go learn to fly . . . that would make it all worth it,” said Triesenberg, the hugely-popular GA pilot from Ann Arbor who flies mainly as a hobby.
“It’s not like somebody’s standing there and saying, ‘You can’t be a pilot for fun,’” she added. “It’s just — people don’t know that you can.”