WAI Draws Crowds in Return of a Live Show

 - March 22, 2022, 11:37 AM
Among the activities at Girls in Aviation Day, held on the last day of 33d annual International Women in Aviation Conference, was the decoration of an Embraer Legacy. The colorful Legacy is to head to Nashville International Airport where it will be placed on display. (Photo: Kerry Lynch/AiN)

The 33rd edition of the Women in Aviation International (WAI) annual conference wrapped up on Saturday after hosting more than 4,500 attendees from 16 countries and awarding 103 scholarships totaling $473,000. Organizers called the three-day show one of WAI’s largest events, following the virtual event in 2021.

The return of the in-person exhibition drew an international audience with attendees arriving from countries including Singapore, Belize, Ghana, Nigeria, Brazil, and Germany, among others. Nearly 70 percent of the attendees were women. The exhibit hall, which remained packed throughout the show, featured 176 organizations from all segments of aviation, including drones.

WAI2022 marked the signing of a new agreement between WAI and the Civil Air Patrol to collaborate on efforts to foster interest in aviation and flight opportunities for youth, as well as to share educational resources.

The show also brought in accomplished aerospace leaders who shared their stories through motivational keynotes. Confronting fears was a theme of keynote presenter, Niloofar Rahmani, who gave a powerful presentation about the obstacles she faced and overcame to become the first female fixed-wing pilot for the Afghan Air Force in 2013 at the age of 21. Rahmani, whose childhood was marked with living in a tent with no running water, electricity, access to education, or rights for women, is now living in the U.S. under political asylum since she and her family have faced death threats from the Taliban for her achievements.

She told the audience: “If I do what is easy today, my life would be hard tomorrow…I am a human first, not just a woman...If I don’t fight for my rights, who is going to do it?  If I don’t fight for my rights now, when am I going to do it?”

Yet, her talk opened humbly; she said, “my story is nothing” compared with some of the women she had met at WAI and she discussed how honored she felt to be among them.

Rahmani followed Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost, the 14th commander of the U.S. Transportation Command, who spoke of the role models and mentors in her career and told a full general session that “I want us to reach a place where there are no firsts…and where women are foundational at every level.”

Other keynotes included Joan Sullivan Garrett, MedAire founder and chair, who told her story of how the loss of a young boy in Arizona drove her to found the global aviation medical support company and campaign for better access to equipment and telemedicine worldwide. National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy, meanwhile, discussed the importance of resiliency and confronting doubts in achieving goals.

Carole Hopson, a pilot and author, also discussed resiliency as she relayed her story that led her through successful positions as a reporter, then with the NFL, Footlocker, and Loreal before she ultimately achieved her goal—at the age of 54—as an airline pilot.

While many of the keynotes surrounded personal and professional development, Sheila Remes, Boeing v-p of environmental sustainability, discussed building a sense of community and ecosystem for a cleaner, more sustainable environment that includes sustainable aviation fuel and new electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles.

Beyond the keynotes, WAI2022 once again brought back Girls in Aviation Day, which featured 21 activity stations that ranged from a virtual reality simulator of an F-35 and a drone remote control tent to an air traffic simulator, 3D printing pens, and NVF navigational chart scavenger hunt. Some 13 universities, companies, and other organizations hosted the activities that ran alongside a college fair. The daylong event also included a panel highlighting seven different aviation careers and a keynote from Sara Langberg, an aeromechanical engineer and one of the designers of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter. The event drew 200 girls, their chaperones, and 100 volunteers.

WAI2022 also included its usual cadre of educational sessions, many available on conference replay virtually that discussed career, flying and innovation, history, maintenance, the military, and personal development. 

The event also paid tribute to women trailblazers with the Pioneer Hall of Fame inductions and a special ceremony honoring Wally Funk.

“The strength of WAI lies in the celebration of so many like-minded women who come together to share their passion for aviation and aerospace, support each other, learn from each other, and foster the next generation in aviation,” said WAI CEO Allison McKay. “WAI2022 was an amazing venue to commemorate Women’s History month and advance our mission to connect, engage, and inspire our current and future workforce of diverse and accomplished members.”

WAI2023 will be held February 23 to 25 in Long Beach, California.