A Pilot’s Inspiring Journey to SCE

Former helicopter captain Bonnie Bello flew troops in Afghanistan, drug busts in California and now keeps Air Operations crews safe.
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Stories : People
Stories : People

A Pilot’s Inspiring Journey to SCE

Former helicopter captain Bonnie Bello flew troops in Afghanistan, drug busts in California and now keeps Air Operations crews safe.

When Bonnie Bello was a young girl in suburban Chicago, an uncle with a private plane introduced her to flying. “I want to be a pilot when I grow up,” she thought.

Bello says school, boys and other interests pushed her dream aside, temporarily. At 22, she worked as a secretary at the local Veterans Affairs hospital, when she watched a friend taking helicopter flying lessons practice maneuvers.

“I thought it was the coolest thing ever,” Bello said. “A month or so later, I quit my job, went to flight school and started working on my helicopter pilot’s license.”

Bonnie Bello next to a Sikorsky S-61.
Bello at the controls of her helicopter in Afghanistan, where she narrowly missed being hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Bonnie Bello

Today, Bello is a manager at Southern California Edison’s Air Operations unit, responsible for scheduling the company’s growing network of helicopters and drones. Her journey to that position is a story of perseverance, pride and passion.

Just three months after obtaining her pilot’s license, she was hired as a helicopter co-pilot by a company that lifted massive air-conditioning units onto the rooftops of office buildings and big box retail stores.

“I was 23, just out of flight school and I couldn’t even rent a car at the airports we were flying into, but there I was helping fly this big helicopter.”

As a young woman in the cockpit of a giant Sikorsky S-61 helicopter, she endured her fair share of negative comments.

Bonnie Bello at her SCE office.
Bonnie Bello, a former helicopter pilot who flew dangerous missions for the U.S. military and California law enforcement, now focuses on keeping SCE aircraft and their crews safe. PHOTO CREDIT: Ernesto Sanchez

"We came to one job site and the foreman looked at me as a co-pilot and said, ‘What is this, bring your kid to work day?’”

“There was one pilot who had never even flown with me, and he said, ‘You'll never be a captain of a Sikorsky 61.’ And that was the first day he met me!"

“I felt like I had to prove myself.”

She certainly did.

Bello learned to fly helicopters attached to a long line to carry cargo and people. She helped fight wildfires, patrolled power lines and provided support for Hurricane Katrina relief, eventually landing in California, working with a state program to eradicate illegal marijuana grow operations. She would fly law enforcement agents into dense forests to bust hidden farms.

Bello flying a Bell helicopter on a drug eradication mission.
In 2007, Bello piloted a Bell 206 helicopter as part of a California law enforcement task force working to eradicate illegal marijuana growing operations. PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Bonnie Bello

“That was some of the best flying that I have ever done,” Bello said. “It was exciting. The crews were all really tight and it’s where I met my husband.”

Soon married and with a child on the way, Bello took two years off from flying. When she was ready to return, jobs were scarce. Her best offer was from a military contractor flying troops and equipment into forward operating bases in Afghanistan. It meant she would be away from her young son for two months at a time, but it fulfilled a dream. She would be the captain of a Sikorsky S-61.

“I felt like flying in a war zone was less risky than flying in a power line environment,” Bello said. She survived a close call with a rocket-propelled grenade, the blast erupting just outside her aircraft.

A pregnant Bonnie Bello next to her helicopter.
Bello found out she was expecting her first child in 2008 while working with the U.S. Forest Service to fight fires in California. PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Bonnie Bello

When Bello learned she was expecting her second child, it was time for another break from flying, this one permanent. The pilot who had proved herself as tough as anyone broke down in tears during a tour of a day care center.

“The heartbreak of being away from my son for two months at a time … I needed to find a job where I would be home every night,” Bello said. In 2016, she applied for a helicopter dispatcher job at SCE.

“I was reading about what they were looking for, and thinking I have all that experience, I can fly a desk now!”

Bonnie Bello at SCE's Air Operations headquarters in Chino.
Bonnie Bello at SCE's Air Operations headquarters in Chino, where she now "flies a desk." PHOTO CREDIT: Casey Wian

She does so much more. Bello’s department makes sure the company’s growing fleet of aircraft, drones and contractors stay safe while crisscrossing SCE’s 50,000-square-mile service area to make repairs, installations and inspections. Still, she misses flying.

“You've got to have a passion for it,” Bello said. "I think things have improved for women, but you definitely need a thick skin.

“Flying was my dream job, but priorities change and now being able to provide for my family, it's a different kind of reward.”