Women in Aviation

 - March 26, 2011, 11:00 AM

by Amy Laboda

There are few venues in aviation today where you will find the chief of naval operations, the COO of Signature Flight Support Worldwide, a retired SR-71 pilot with a talent for air-to-air photography and aviation training legends Rod Machado and John and Martha King all on the same dais, but the International Women in Aviation Conference, now in its 22nd year, had all of that last month for three short, action-packed days.

The conference, brainchild of Dr. Peggy Baty Chabrian, a university educator whose last post was academic dean and associate vice president of Parks College of St. Louis University, has grown from a meeting of 150 academics researching aviation topics in Prescott, Ariz., in 1990, to just under 3,000 attendees, including men and women from 21 different countries, all involved on some level in commercial, business or recreational aviation.

“The conference attendees are far more diverse than just women, or just pilots,” said Chabrian, president and founder of the member-based organization Women in Aviation International (WAI), which has hosted the conference each year in a different location. “Our members and conference attendees are individuals from academia, maintenance, research, engineering, upper-level management and, even though our name has ‘women’ in it, 10 percent of our membership, and even more of our conference attendees, are men,” she said.

Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations for the U.S., in his speech to the packed room stated, “The armed forces of the United States should resemble the diversity of the country itself. This is what will make us strong.”

COO of Signature Flight Support Maria Sastre spoke of her rise through the ranks of customer service and IT support, as well as her experience as one of the first Latina vice presidents at a major airline in the U.S. Her appointment last year to COO of Signature Flight Support Worldwide comes after a short period in retirement, and a stint as CEO of a large nonprofit, Take Stock in Children. The highlight of her position at Signature, she said, is the ability to fine-tune its customer service from the front line, and she travels extensively to meet and train managers in the company’s system.

More than 120 exhibitors filled the conference exhibit hall at the Reno, Nev., Grand Sierra Resort Hotel, and most of those exhibitors brought staff from their human resources departments to collect résumés and find potential employees. This de facto job fair was enhanced by the WAI online Virtual Job Fair, open to WAI members and conference attendees, hosted by WAI corporate sponsor Aeroindustryjobs.com. The Virtual Job Fair listed more than 70 high-quality aviation jobs that cut a swath across the spectrum of possible careers in aviation and aerospace. The tone was distinctly upbeat throughout the three-day affair.

Along with an exhibit hall and job fair, the WAI Conference held more than 50 education sessions on topics that ranged from in-flight catering and safe food handling to corporate pilot careers to NextGen airspace design to “How to Buy an Aircraft.” Attendance at some of the sessions could be used for FAA Wings continuing education credit for pilots and mechanics, including a complete IA Maintenance Recurrent Training day. FAA employees could also use several of the education sessions for continuing education credits.

Finally, the organization served as the clearinghouse for its corporate members and individual members to award nearly $700,000 in scholarships. Seventy-six WAI members received scholarships that ranged from Boeing 737 type ratings to Pratt & Whitney maintenance training courses, to money for university or technical programs, to leadership awards. The organization itself provides 10 monetary grants from its $870,000 endowment fund. The next set of WAI scholarships will be posted in late July, and will be awarded in March 2012 at the 23rd annual International Women in Aviation Conference, to be held in Dallas.

“Children look around them and imagine who they’ll be when they grow up,” says Chabrian. “Adults struggling to discover their next career move do the same. At the Women in Aviation conference it is easy for them to imagine they’ll be a part of aviation and aerospace in the future. That’s what increasing diversity is all about.” o