An airplane is the ultimate equalizer. It doesn’t care whether its pilot is black or white, male or female, straight or gay or something in between. An airplane doesn’t care whether you are fat or thin, short or tall, young or old. It doesn’t care what your political affiliation is, how much money you make, or whether you believe in a god. It doesn’t even care about your immigration status, your medical history, or what level of pilot certificate you hold.
It only cares about one thing: Will you fly it? Because if you fail to do that one thing, it will let you down. Hard. But if you do your job and just fly the airplane, it will not fail you. Your landing might not be the smoothest ever recorded. Insurance claims may get filed and hospital visits may be required to mend wounds. But chances are good that you will survive, learn from the experience, and live to fly again another day.
March is national Women’s History Month, and as pilots we pause to honor the pioneering women who have achieved notoriety in the aviation and aerospace industries. Today American women have the same legal rights as men and have equal access to educational and career opportunities across the board. Yet women represent only 6 percent of all pilots here in the United States, which is home to the largest population of pilots of any country in the world. That number has not changed much over the last several decades, despite the outreach and advocacy efforts of groups such as The Ninety-Nines and Women in Aviation International. The reasons for this stagnation are unclear, but industry leaders often cite lack of exposure to aviation among girls as a contributing factor.
I joined The Ninety-Nines in 2004 at the suggestion of my flight instructor, whose wife was the local chapter president. I was a private pilot working on my instrument rating, and had not yet decided to pursue a career in aviation. I belonged to a flying club, and at the time was the only female member among 50 or so male pilots and flight instructors. It was actually kind of nice, though, because I felt like I had dozens of big brothers, uncles and grandfathers who all cared about me and taught me to be a safe pilot. These men respected me for my skill and knowledge as a pilot, and never treated me any differently because of my gender.
For me, joining The Ninety-Nines opened up a broader circle of mentors and friends at my home airport. I didn’t join because I wanted to identify as a female pilot. I just wanted to be a better pilot and learn from others with more experience. My chapter was a group of highly intelligent, motivated and talented women who shared a passion for aviation. I’m still friends with many of them. They hosted a baby shower for me at the airport, and provided a special source of comfort and encouragement to me both during and after my pregnancy, when flying airplanes took a back seat to adjusting to the physical and emotional challenges every new mother faces.
In my opinion, the only thing that’s unique about being a female pilot is flying while pregnant. Only a biological woman can truly relate to that physical experience, but fathers also face unique challenges once their child is born. When Dana and I welcomed our daughter Alexandra into the world four years ago, we all endured a very rough ride. She was born with a life-threatening respiratory condition and spent three months in the neonatal intensive care unit before she was healthy enough to come home. During that difficult time in the hospital, Dana continued instructing as our sole source of income while I spent every day in the hospital with our daughter, managing her care. Seeing what Dana went through to keep our family and our dreams afloat during our first year of parenthood, I can honestly say that my male students face the same challenges as my female students. They have to balance family and work responsibilities with the demands of flight training, and in many cases, face additional pressures because they are the sole breadwinner in a family with several young children at home with their mother. So while we honor women in aviation this month, I’d also like to recognize all the good guys out there who support us in following our dreams of flying.
I was extremely fortunate to have several great mentors during the years I was working on becoming a flight instructor. I recognize, however, that many budding pilots are not as fortunate as I was, and do not have the emotional, educational and financial resources that I had available to me when I was working my way up the ladder. Organizations like The Ninety-Nines do a great job of providing some assistance, but ultimately it’s up to the individual to rise to the occasion and do whatever it takes to succeed.
I now serve as president of the First Coast chapter of The Ninety-Nines, based here in Jacksonville. We are a very small group focused on providing mentoring and educational resources to pilots in northeast Florida. If you would like more information about The Ninety-Nines, please visit the organization’s website. www.ninety-nines.org.
Scholarships, mentoring programs and service opportunities are available at both the local and national levels through The Ninety-Nines and other organizations, including:
The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (http://www.aopa.org)
The Experimental Aircraft Association (http://www.eaa.org)
Women in Aviation International (https://www.wai.org)
The Black Pilots Association (http://www.bpapilots.org)
The National Gay Pilots Association (http://www.ngpa.org)
The Civil Air Patrol (http://www.gocivilairpatrol.com)
I think the best thing any pilot can do to promote aviation is volunteer his or her time to expose a child or a young person to airplanes and the magic of flight. Aviation is a great medium for teaching kids about science, personal responsibility and the value of honest, hard work. It doesn’t matter if you are a student pilot or a veteran airline pilot, your experience is extremely valuable! Dana and I visited our daughter’s preschool this week for show-and-tell. We brought toy airplanes and headsets for them to try on. Our daughter is growing up around airplanes just like I did (my father is a pilot) and it is our hope that even if she never learns to fly, she will view aviation as a rewarding and viable recreational activity and potential career path.
Below: Me flying the Cub to a nearby grass strip in the summer of 2016. I went there to visit with a fellow Ninety-Nines chapter member.