About a year ago, I was having dinner with a friend of mine, and in the course of conversation I asked her, “Would you like to be a pilot someday?” She paused to consider her response before replying no, she thought not.
What stuck with me from that exchange wasn’t her no, but her pause. There she was in her early 30s and asking herself, perhaps for the first time in her life, if she’d like to fly. The experience of sitting across from her and watching her think has crystallized for me just how fortunate I was to enter flight training and earn my Private Pilot License when I was still a teenager and, historically, how rarely other girls and women have had that same opportunity. For this reason, I felt compelled to volunteer at my local Girls in Aviation Day event held at Holman Field in St. Paul, which was held by Women in Aviation International.
I was stationed in the educational area and got to teach the girls in attendance a rapid-fire class on the subject of the force of lift. In my classes, I had students ranging in age from elementary to high school. During breaks, as the students shuffled around, some expressed enthusiasm about being a pilot someday. Some were trying to figure out what to study in college that would lay the foundation for other careers in aviation. Others said they weren’t interested in aviation at all and had other goals in mind. Since the point of the day was to give each of the 1,200 attendees the opportunity to participate in aviation and to let them opt in or out for themselves, all were welcome, no matter their level of interest.
From the classroom, we could see where the planes would be coming in to offer discovery flights to the students. Another teacher remarked that she liked seeing women out on the apron, ready to service the incoming aircraft. It was Girls in Aviation Day, after all, and those women were going to be a live example of women in aviation. They showed that there were opportunities beyond the role of pilot, including maintenance, air traffic control, and engineering.
Unfortunately, the clouds that day were too low for the discovery flights to take place, but the students were treated to a talk from Elizabeth McCormick, who spoke about the determination it took for her to realize her dream of piloting Black Hawk helicopters for the Army. She posited that she was met with some resistance by her recruiter at least in part because she was a woman seeking to fly Black Hawks. Happily, she persevered and ultimately achieved her dream.
For one thirty-five-year-old woman, Girls in Aviation Day helped reignite a lifelong passion. Both she and her brother had an interest in aviation, but he was the one who got flying lessons when he turned 16; she got monogrammed stationary and and etiquette book. When I met her, her mentor had just passed away, and she had made a decision to leave her profession as a lawyer and become an airline pilot. Today, after a stint at a regional airline and NetJets, she’s the only female corporate pilot for 3M and an inspiration to myself and all women plotting to take flight with a mid-life career change.
Only 6.6% of all active pilots are women. Per FAA data, the percentage of female commercial pilots, that is those that have a rating that allows them to make money as a pilot, is 5% . I don’t know how much we can change those numbers, if at all, but standing there at the end of Girls in Aviation Day, I couldn’t help but be moved by the efforts to make aviation more accessible to young women and the progress toward more equal representation.
The Twin Cities had the largest Girls in Aviation Day event world-wide. I think our turnout speaks, at least in part, to the inclusive nature of the men and women who make up our aviation community. We’ve got a good thing going here, and I’m excited to help out and see what grows next. I just got a letter in the mail telling me to save the date for the next Girls in Aviation day on September 23rd, 2017. I know I’ll be there, and I hope some of my readers here will be, too.
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