Women in Aviation

 - March 31, 2008, 10:06 AM

The 19th annual Women in Aviation International (WAI) conference drew a record number of civilian and military attendees to San Diego last month, prompting WAI president Dr. Peggy Chabrian to call the event “one of the most exhilarating and successful conferences we’ve had.” More than 250 of the 3,320 participants were military members, which broke all previous records for military participation as well as total conference attendance. Last year’s event attracted 3,200 attendees.

The 224 exhibitors and the amount and number of scholarships awarded–$710,855 to 80 participants–also shattered previous records, Chabrian said, adding that the scholarship awards were “the most exciting successes of this year’s event.” Last year, 49 participants received $385,000, and Chabrian had estimated at the start of this year’s conference that the scholarships would total around $520,000.

Chabrian also announced that WAI and the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) will be partnering during EAA AirVenture (July 28 to August 3) to form “WomenVenture,” a networking and mentoring opportunity for female attendees. “It’s exciting to have the opportunity to work with EAA to give visibility to the thousands of women who share a passion for aviation with hundreds of thousands of men,” Chabrian said. “Women work in all aspects of aviation and at every level. The growth potential for women in aviation is astounding; just look at the numbers.”

EAA vice president Elissa Lines added, “Women are remarkable mentors and advocates. Our hope is that by bringing attention to the numbers of women already in aviation–pilots, mechanics, controllers, engineers–we can not only inspire many more to pursue what may be a dream for them, but also help identify a support network for those pursuing this path.”

The WAI conference general sessions– which included speeches by a variety of aviation professionals–were the highlight of the gathering for many attendees, according to Cessna spokeswoman Pia Bergqvist, who attended on behalf of her company. “The general sessions were phenomenal,” she said. The speakers included aerobatic pilot Julie Clark; John and Martha King, co-owners of King Schools; NASA shuttle commander Pamela Melroy; Sherry Avery, head of Los Angeles Tracon; Deborah Limb, Boeing’s director of payload and structures; Dr. Peter Diamandis, CEO of XPrize and Zero-G; and Jennifer Murray, the only woman to fly a helicopter around the world solo.

Famed aviator Brigadier General Chuck Yeager also spoke during a luncheon address and expressed admiration for female aviators. “Keep up the good work and fly safe,” he said. He also noted that his career flourished for one reason: “I was in the right place at the right time, and I was doing the job I was trained to do.”

Melroy received the loudest applause and a standing ovation after recounting her experience as a shuttle commander last year aboard Space Shuttle Discovery. STS-120 was the first mission in which two female mission commanders were in space at the same time. (Peggy Whitson served as the space station commander.) Melroy urged females in the audience to consider a career in space, especially in light of the fact that NASA will be sending another mission to the moon within 10 years. “I’m just like all of you,” she said. “You can be an astronaut, too.”

Limb, formerly the director of the Boeing 787 fuselage and interiors life cycle product team, also received a standing ovation for her speech, in which she described the ways her battle with cancer had changed her outlook and her career. “I used to be competitive and self-centered,” she said. “Cancer changed me.” She now tries to live in a way that is aligned with her values, she said, and she tries to make a difference in other people’s lives and urges other women to use the talents they have been blessed with. Limb said she also takes responsibility for her actions and elicited a laugh when she addressed the status of the 787 Dreamliner: “Yes, it’s a little late. But it’s beautiful and it’s going to fly.”

In addition to the general sessions, participants also took part in dozens of educational seminars. The seminars included corporate, military and airline career panels; dispatch and ATC seminars; maintenance and line handling panels; and various seminars addressing professionalism, aviation history and airspace infrastructure.

Bergqvist applauded WAI for providing women with the ability to network and explore new opportunities during the seminars. “It’s a great time in the industry, especially in terms of employment,” she said, adding that Cessna intends to hire up to 1,500 people over the next year. The Wichita-based OEM also awarded more than $25,000 in scholarships during the conference.

Some attendees, however, expressed disappointment that many of the seminars and general session speeches seemed to target pilots specifically. Tyria Riley, an electrical installations design engineer for Boeing, said the opportunity to network with other women was the biggest thrill, but she said a lack of professional development seminars for engineers was a “downfall.” “Many of the seminars were too pilot-specific,” she said, adding that only a few seminars were applicable to her job.

Embry-Riddle engineering student Gisela Munoz, who also holds an A&P certificate, echoed Riley’s thoughts and said few of the seminars addressed her specific needs as an engineer. Munoz did welcome the opportunity to network with other female engineers and speak with OEMs and engine manufacturers at the
exhibit booths, however.  

Corporate Aviation Association Celebrates 15 Years

Women in Corporate Aviation (WCA) celebrated its 15th anniversary last month at the Women in Aviation International (WAI) conference in San Diego. The two organizations share the same goal–to provide women with scholarships, mentors and the opportunity to network–but WCA grew out of a need to provide a voice to women whose needs weren’t met by the various airline groups.

In its first year, the organization consisted of 12 women who had little more than a shared interest in business and corporate aviation. But through its affiliation with organizations such as WAI and NBAA, WCA has slowly been building its presence. “For the last 15 years, WCA has been a growing organization,” said WCA archivist Kimberlie Miller. “It started as a way for women in corporate aviation to network and to mentor, and it’s grown from there.”

In addition to providing networking opportunities and mentors to its members, WCA also provides opportunities for its members to continue their education. “Our biggest accomplishment has been our scholarships,” Miller said. “We started with one scholarship a year, and now we’re up to three a year. And the amounts continue to increase every year.” During the conference, WCA presented two scholarships: a $2,000 career scholarship to Lynchburg, Va. resident and commercial Part 141 student Elizabeth Partie and $1,000 to Brittany Attwood, a high-school senior from Indiana.

“The most daunting obstacle I’ve faced so far hasn’t been the complicated fast-paced Class B clearances or the slightly bewildering offset localizer directional aid course at a nearby local airport, but rather the extensive flight training costs that go along with these fantastic experiences,” Partie told WCA members. “It has truly been an adventure, and now an extreme honor to have been chosen as the recipient of the WCA scholarship.”

Partie also said it was encouraging to see so many women with similar interests. Michelle Powell, WCA scholarship co-chair, explained that many women feel the same after attending a WAI/WCA event. “It’s really energizing because once we go home, we’re sometimes the only female in our organization,” she said. “I was really heartened by the number of women who were interested and stopped by our booth. The interest in corporate aviation seems to be climbing every year.”

Women from every walk of life, every avenue of aviation are welcome to join WCA, Miller said, whether they work as dispatchers, pilots, mechanics, lawyers, ground personnel, travel agents or tax advisors. “Anyone who is in corporate aviation can be a member of our group,” she said.

Miller also urged women to attend conferences such as the one hosted by WAI. “Here there are 3,000 other women who have the same passion for the same industry. I’ve been attending for 10 years, and this is the one place I can network, and get together with friends and family. This feels like home.”