Cost, lack of support cited as barriers to women in aviation

November 23, 2010

A two-year study shows that the low numbers of women pilots may be attributable not only to the cost of learning to fly, but also to factors that are more gender specific.

The majority of women who participated in the study cited the cost of training as a barrier to success. But they also mentioned lack of female mentors, instructors who didn’t communicate effectively—a “Mars/Venus” scenario—and a lack of confidence in their ability to handle an airplane. They were more likely to cite a “fear” of flying if their instructor demonstrated a stall recovery too early in their training.

Colorado pilot and AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer Penny Hamilton obtained in-depth interviews or surveys from 296 respondents, including 157 women pilots, 54 women student pilots, and 85 flight instructors regarding their flight training experiences. She identified a lack of support—from mentors, flight schools, and nonflying family and friends—as among the barriers cited by women.

“Most of them mentioned the importance of feeling comfortable with the pilot groups on the airport and their reaching out and being friendly,” she said in an interview with AOPA, adding that few airports have local chapters of The Ninety-Nines or Women in Aviation, International. She said community is important for women, who tend to be more social than men and have different communication styles.

Some women also encountered a lack of emotional support from family and friends who perceive of flying as “too dangerous,” the study suggests. Other factors include interruptions in training from an instructor leaving, lack of experience with mechanical systems or orienteering, and that famous female pilot role models are largely unknown to nonpilot women.

Hamilton, who has a Ph.D. in communications, said the findings suggest not only barriers that prevent women from being successful, but also specific steps that flight schools and others should take to help draw women to flying and help them achieve their pilot certificates. The FAA has said that women comprise about 6 percent of the pilot population.

“I don’t just want to find out about the problems. I want to find out what we can do,” she said.

Hamilton created a “Top 10” list of ways to encourage women to become involved in aviation and to succeed at their flight training. The first two items suggest creation of a low-interest revolving loan for flight training that is not connected with community college or university programs, and expansion of GA scholarships, grants, or low-interest loans. Other ideas include:

  • Develop and promote a free, readily available database of female mentors for female GA student pilots;
  • Create a free online “Keep Flying” support community for female student pilots;
  • Develop “female friendly” flight training with more simulator time and increase women’s confidence level by building on what they already know, instead of by going strictly by the FAA curriculum.

Hamilton, who is the wife of AOPA Central Regional Representative Bill Hamilton, said she started flight training because she was involved in her husband’s work and often spoke to AOPA members. She had a positive flight training experience and support from her husband, and the two now fly a Piper Turbo Arrow. When she heard AOPA President Craig Fuller urge pilots to take action to help increase the pilot population, she applied for a grant from the Alfred L. and Constance C. Wolf Aviation Fund, which partially funded the study. In 2011, she wants to promote positive stories about women in aviation and work with other groups to implement her recommendations. She has set a goal of a 1-percent increase in women pilots in 2011, urging women pilots to take one specific action during the year to mentor and encourage other women.

“If we only need that few a number and you got one, do you realize how important your action was?” she said.

The complete results and recommendations are available online. Prospective pilots can find resources about flying on the Let’s Go Flying website, and student pilots can learn more on the Flight Training website.

For more information on AOPA's recent flight training research project, watch the "The Future of Flight Training" AOPA Live video from the AOPA Aviation Summit Nov. 10 keynote presentation.