Momentum needed to get women into aviation

November 5, 2009

Women’s role in aviation has grown progressively stronger since the days of Wilbur and Orville Wright, but there’s much more to be done, airshow pilot Patty Wagstaff and Women in Aviation, International President Peggy Chabrian said Nov. 5.

Wagstaff was born into an aviation family—her father was a pilot for Japan Airlines—but even she was told at an early age that “girls don’t become pilots. That was the prevailing thought of the day in the late fifties and early sixties,“ she said. But Wagstaff said she has seen changes in attitudes toward women in aviation “and I still see them changing.“ Her younger sister, for instance, became an airline pilot for Continental.

Patty wagstaffDuring a discussion of women in aviation at AOPA Aviation Summit in Tampa, Fla., Wagstaff said introducing children to aviation at an early age is key to getting more women involved. “It’s not that easy anymore,“ she said. Airports are hard to get to and security is tighter. Airshows remain a prime resource to get the public interested in flying, Wagstaff said, noting that her love of aerobatics was ignited when she attended an airshow. “Airshows are the number one place to see and hear airplanes, touch an airplane, get inside an airplane,“ she said.

Chabrian agreed that children should be encouraged to pursue aviation earlier, and said parents, teachers, and guidance counselors are not as inclined to encourage girls to explore careers in aviation fields. The EAA Young Eagles program does a great job of sparking youngsters’ interest by taking them flying, Chabrian said, adding that pilots need to get involved by taking daughters, nieces, and granddaughters aloft as well as sons, nephews, and grandsons. Chabrian said she first became enthralled with flight during her college years after she took a ride in a 1946 Ercoupe with a friend in Tennessee. That ride changed her life, causing her to pursue her pilot certificate and eventually to become an aviation educator.

Discussing the history of women in aviation, Chabrian noted that Orville Wright didn’t think women would make good pilots because they “didn’t enjoy flying for the thrill of flying.“ In 1909, the Curtiss Flying Company, seeking ways to increase its business, hit upon the idea of training a woman to fly a Curtiss airplane. Blanche Stuart Scott trained in a 35-hp pusher fitted with a throttle governor to prevent her from lifting off while taxiing solo. She eventually did solo in 1910.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the “Golden Age of Aviation,“ women were involved as parachutists and competed in the first All-Transcontinental Women’s Air Race, known as the Powder Puff Derby, Chabrian said. The participants of that race, who hadn’t had an opportunity to meet other women aviators, eventually formed The Ninety-Nines, the International Organization of Women Pilots. The 1,070 members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) ferried aircraft during World War II. By the 1960s, Chabrian said, women were more prevalent in the ranks of flight instructors and charter operations, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that the first woman airline pilot was hired. “In the 1970s, the airline management wasn’t sure what the public reaction would be toward the sight of women in the cockpit,“ she said, adding that the airlines asked their women pilots not to wear makeup or to make announcements over the public address system. Today, 5 percent of airline pilots are female, she said.

Women have made great gains in the fields of air traffic control and aeronautical engineering. “The numbers are growing all the time,“ Chabrian said.