Flying It Forward

Flying It Forward

Raymonde de Laroche, the first woman
to earn a pilot’s license (1910).

For the past 30 or so years, March 8 has been celebrated as International Women in Aviation day, which coincides with the day on which the first woman, Raymonde de Laroche, earned a pilot’s license in 1910. The point is highlight and bring awareness to the achievements of women in all aviation career fields over the past century-plus of powered flight. To coincide, Women in Aviation International hold its annual convention each March – this year, it’s March 5-7 in Orlando. The event hosts world-class speakers, job fairs, networking events and awards nearly $1 million in scholarships to women across the entire spectrum of aviation. In addition, there are hundreds of accomplished pilots and leaders walking the convention corridors – all there because they want to mentor the next generation.

Having been in aviation all my life, I’m thankful that I had the ultimate mentor – my mom, who was a pioneering pilot and businesswoman in her own right. Beyond her, I had a few great bosses who mentored me, as well as an incredibly supportive spouse who also has worked in aviation his entire career. As parents of two daughters, we raised them to think nothing is impossible if they are willing to work for it, and no doors have to be closed. As my oldest pursues her Navy wings of gold, she has opportunities ahead that many past generations could only dream of.

I often get asked, was it hard to get your start in aviation? My answer: probably, but I didn’t care and didn’t let the naysayers get in my way. I knew what I wanted to accomplish and did what it took to get it done. If that meant I had to work harder, show up earlier and leave later, and hold the quality of my work to a higher standard, I just did it. 

Not that I wasn’t acutely aware of the gender disparity in aviation in the late 1980s and 1990s. As a young professional woman, I clearly remember one particular visit to a major general aviation manufacturer for a meeting and factory tour. I recall walking into the administrative offices and gaping at “mahogany row” with the wood-paneled offices with male managers on one side and a row of low desks with female secretaries smartly dressed in skirts and suits lined up across from each office door. I could have sworn the year was 1955, not 1995. Except for the secretaries, I didn’t see a single skirt in engineering or flight ops. Where were they? Mostly in marketing, PR, interior design. A few were scattered on the manufacturing floor as well. 

Today, that mahogany row I encountered is pretty much gone. In that same company, there are numerous women in leadership positions, some running entire divisions of a multi-billion-dollar corporation. Yes, a few dinosaurs still exist, but their time is about up as a new generation of leaders emerge who don’t see talent, skill and hard work defined along gender lines.

Recently, I had a conversation about this very topic with Tammie Jo Shults, the Southwest Airlines captain who was hailed for successfully landing her Boeing 737 after a catastrophic, uncontained engine failure at altitude caused an explosive decompression. Looking back at her path to the left seat, she said she encountered plenty of obstacles in her pursuit of a naval aviation career. “I had a dad who treated me as an equal to my brothers, so I never geared my aspirations based on my gender. When I got to aviation officers’ candidate school, I was shocked, I had never encountered those fences before.”

But while she encountered plenty of “friendly fire,” she too had a great mentor. Navy Captain Rosemary Mariner was in the first class of six women to earn their wings in the U.S. Navy. In addition, she was the first female military pilot to fly a tactical jet and the first to achieve command of an operational aviation squadron. Lucky for Tammie Jo, she happened to be her skipper during her training. Rosemary sent Tammie Jo and one other female pilot to A-7 Corsair weapons school, which was before women were allowed to fly combat missions. “She saw it coming in the future, and whether it was to prepare us or to show everyone that it’s doable, she wanted us to go.”

It wasn’t easy. “The first few nights, the guys took off on us, so we ate our dinner out of the vending machine at the airport. But it backfired on them because we had nothing to do but chair-fly our bombing pattern, so we ended up ranked No. 1 and No. 2.”

Unhappy that they stood at the top of the leaderboard, the men in charge took away their bullets and bombs. Tammie Jo called Rosemary telling her, “I know you paid for bombs, and we’re flying the bombing pattern without bombs or bullets because they weren’t happy that we scored at the top of the board.” Rosemary was able to get the bombs reinstated but not their bullets. 

That was the 1980s and Tammie Jo is quick to point out much has changed. “Whether it’s engineering, being a mechanic or flying, the doors are open now like they have never been open in history – both in civilian as well as military worlds. If you want to do it, there’s no reason not to.”

Then with a twinkle in her eye and a smile, she added, “Flying isn’t a gender thing – after all, it is just piloting.” 

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