My first real aviation boss, who also became one of my instructors as I added ratings, and later a friend with whom I argued feverishly at times. One former girlfriend (and her mother). Two of my students. A small number of my first officers, and only two of the captains I flew with at my first airline, and so far, none at my current one. Only a few of the pilots in my current base, out of a total of nearly 200.
And that pretty much sums up the majority of women I’ve known in aviation. There just haven’t been that many of them. Supposedly, the FAA register of pilots is made up of around 600,000 pilots, depending on how you do the math. Of those, only 30,000 or so—a measly 5 percent—are women. Five percent! That’s an abomination. It’s also a huge marketing opportunity for general aviation, flight schools, et cetera. The ratio at major aviation colleges often isn’t much better.
I have two daughters, and they have grown up with me being a pilot. They have traveled with me (and because of me), and they’ve seen the benefits of aviation, both in the practical sense and as a means of making a living. If I had to buy all the seats we’ve used, my bill would be triple the national debt. They’ve sat in my cockpits and ridden on my flights for fun, out of convenience, and out of necessity. They have both at times talked of following in my footsteps—maybe not to fly for a career, but to take advantage of the opportunities that being able to fly offers. They often don’t understand why more people don’t fly more often.
They’ve also asked me why more women don’t fly. It’s rare enough that they definitely notice when they have a female crew member. When they recently rode on a 747 with a female captain, they thought it was the “coolest thing ever”—but it also made them mad that there aren’t more of women commanding 747s and 380s.
It bothers me, too. The female pilots I’ve flown with have been among the best I’ve flown with, male or female. One of them, who is one of my best friends and can fly circles around most other pilots, is on the short list (four or five) of people I’d like to have in my airplane in the direst of emergencies.
We need women in aviation. It’s hard enough to be involved in an activity of any sort when it is as expensive and time-consuming as flying. If you don’t have the support of the people in your life, it becomes a dream that can quickly die on the vine. For many of us, those people include or spouses, mothers, daughters, and girlfriends. That alone should be reason enough to involve them.
But it’s more than that. Women are more frequently earning more money, and they need a place to spend it, and they need goals to pursue. Why are we not doing more to entice them to learning to fly? They don’t all need to be on the track to be airline pilots or G-V pilots for a Fortune 500 company. They can fly sport planes, or ultralights, or a Cirrus to visit Mom and Dad. We just need to get them to the airport and introduce them to what we already know, and then let them fully embrace it on their own terms.
Two of the best aerobatic pilots in the world are women. One you’ve heard of: Patty Wagstaff, who can do things with a, airplane that would make most of us sick. The other is Katie Higgins, the first woman to fly with the Blue Angels. Women have commanded the space shuttle and spent months on the space station. At small airports, however, too many are relegated to working at the counter, and not enough are flying or working on the airplanes. Oh, I should mention: Two of the best mechanics at my first airline were ladies.
Women I’ve spoken to have told me that they have a few reasons for not flying: If the airlines are the issue, they are conflicted by the schedules and time away from the kids they want to raise. If it’s general aviation, they are often afraid that they will be treated the same way they often are when they need to get their car fixed (ripped off, played for dumb, sexually harassed, and assumed to be out of their element); and they often don’t have a mentor to guide them. Their perceptions may not be accurate, so it’s up to us to prove that those perceptions are wrong, and make them feel welcome.
We can all do more, and we need to. If we had as many female pilots as male pilots, the pilot population would more than double. Think about the opportunity that presents. Think about opportunity, period. As a group, let’s find a way to provide it to the women in our lives that might enjoy aviation, and let’s do it the same way we want it done for ourselves: honestly, respectfully, and with open arms.—Chip Wright