Girls with wings

Girls need flight plans, not fairy tales, says founder

October 1, 2010

Since 2005, when Lynda Meeks was a charter pilot working for Flight Options, she has been the motivational force behind Girls With Wings, the nonprofit organization she founded with the sole purpose of bringing the aviation world into the lives of as many young women as possible.

Professionally, Meeks moved on to become a Cessna Citation X pilot for NetJets while continuing her work of inspiring girls to want to learn about flying. But as a result of the financial downturn and her pending furlough at NetJets, Meeks found herself at a crossroads, and a difficult decision needed to be made about what her life’s work was really all about. A clue to help her down the right path came in summer 2009.

While working the Girls With Wings booth at her fifth EAA AirVenture, Meeks noticed a significant increase in interest from the public in her programs. “The more I thought about it,” she says, “the more I determined that Girls With Wings was poised for growth, and that opportunities were passing me by. The furlough from NetJets was a gift in disguise. It’s hard to work without having the safety net of a guaranteed paycheck, but the organization has built up so much momentum over the past few years, it would be a shame not to see where the collective support of the GA community will take it.” Meeks decided to devote everything she had to Girls With Wings. It is a decision that could be a windfall opportunity for the GA community.

With 37,981 females making up just 6.18 percent of the 595,000 certificated pilots in the United States at the end of 2008, according to FAA data, aviation’s gender gap remains fully intact. But with a solid plan for generating interest in aviation among females and young women, Meeks is tapping her contagious enthusiasm for flight to spread the word about what it means to learn to fly.

Meeks believes that a fascination for airplanes seems to be present in every boy’s DNA, and a steady stream of them grow into young men and eventually become flight students. “Girls are wired differently,” Meeks says, “Few girls who don’t come from aviation families seem to be introduced to flying. It is this specific problem that prompted me to develop the program in the first place.”

The Girls With Wings website has been a crucial element in Meeks’ campaign to recruit young women to think about becoming pilots. “You’ll notice that the program’s website is pink and flowery,” she says, “because you can’t appeal to girls with red, blue, and black. They are naturally attracted to the ‘girly’ colors. My niece loves Southwest Airlines because the airplanes are purple.”

On the program’s bright, cheery website, visitors will find the Penelope Pilot Project, which appeals to younger girls and presents an “aviate, navigate, communicate” theme. “Yes, Girls Can Fly!” branded merchandise delivers a core message, with sales going to support the program’s continuous outreach efforts. Another important and popular part of the site is the portal to the Girls With Wings scholarship program, which raises funds to pay for flight lessons for females. “The website has built an audience of girls and women who are looking for the community and networking functions that I have developed with Girls With Wings. Women are very social and need the support of other women who are or have been in their shoes,” Meeks says.

As more and more girls discover flying through the Girls With Wings program, the foundation is being built to develop these bright young females into pilots. But through the community of visitors to the website, relationships have been born that often lead to much more than a private pilot certificate. It is this potential to make a significant difference in pilot demographics that keeps the program’s founder going.

“I spent 12 years in the military and people thought I was crazy to walk away from an eventual retirement,” Meeks says. “But I knew that it was better karma to make a difference in someone’s life. That would be my legacy. And when I met Kimberly Russo, she proved to me that I was on the right track.”

Russo is a U.S. Air Force pilot who would not be where she is today without the help of Meeks and Girls With Wings. “I was always fascinated with flying as far back as I can remember,” said Russo. “I actually looked forward to the flight on every vacation as much as the vacation itself! When I decided to follow my dream to fly, I stumbled across the Girls With Wings website and was provided with invaluable information from other women pilots on what my options were. I feel lucky to have found so much support and encouragement from others.”

Since taking on Girls With Wings full-time, Meeks can be found at schools, airshows, and public events giving her fun and educational presentation about the possibilities that are waiting for girls, if they will just reach out and grab them. “The presentations are best suited for fourth- to sixth-graders,” says Meeks. “I also do presentations for seventh- to ninth-graders, but for the older girls, I do more of a career-day format. I tell them that women are becoming more successful and earning more income every day, and that while the initial training will be a challenge, it will be worth it because flying can be a woman’s escape, just as it is with male pilots. Plus, I tell them that while being a pilot can be a very good career, it also makes a wonderful hobby. A strong message in every presentation I give is that there is absolutely no reason that more girls cannot be pilots. It is a huge confidence booster. After all, if you can land an airplane, nothing else seems as intimidating.”

Another important message is that it’s OK to visit the local airport. “The public often doesn’t even know there is a GA airport just down the street, or they drive by every day without noticing,” Meeks says. “I hope to make it cool again to visit the small airports at the edge of nearly every city in the country. I tell the girls that pilots are some of the nicest, most sociable people they will ever meet, and I encourage them to bring their families out to the airport to spend some quality time on a great outing.”

The U.S. Census puts the female population at about 51 percent, but according to Meeks, nearly that entire demographic is being missed in the effort to bring people into flying. “It’s simple math,” she says. “The secret to sustained growth for aviation businesses large and small is through recruitment of more females. I believe that if we start them thinking about flying early in life, at some point they will end up in the left seat of a small airplane taking that important first lesson.”

Brad Hayden, director of marketing for Aspen Avionics, agrees that changing the pilot demographics makes good sense on many levels. “It’s everyone’s responsibility in the general aviation industry to grow the pilot ranks and ensure a robust general aviation community in the future,” Hayden said. “We are always on the lookout to attract young people, both males and females, to this exciting industry. That’s simply good business. Women represent a potential growth area for new pilots.”

“This is absolutely my life’s calling, or I wouldn’t be spending all my money, time, effort, and emotion on it,” Meeks explains. “I know in my heart that while there have been great efforts nationwide for encouraging kids to learn to fly, what we’ve been doing isn’t working or else that 6-percent-female pilot demographic would have increased. When you try to appeal to both boys and girls, you lose the girls.”

As Girls With Wings rides atop its current wave of new energy, Meeks has set her goals high, and hopes to expand her reach and take the program national. This expansion will be key if the aviation community is to see the female pilot population grow in numbers high enough to make a financial difference in the sector.

“There is only one of me. As a 501(c)(3), we need the large aviation corporations to step up and provide the funding needed to be able to train representatives to do Girls With Wings presentations across the nation. If the program is to be influential on a larger scale, and produce the female pilots aviation needs to achieve real growth, we must deliver a consistent message. I want girls in all 50 states to choose the Girls With Wings website over some site about being a princess, because what is at the heart of our program’s work is the premise that girls need flight plans, not fairy tales.”

Dan Pimentel is an instrument-rated private pilot in Eugene, Oregon, and is the president of an aviation advertising agency. He blogs about aviation topics online. For more information on Girls With Wings: www.girlswithwings.com; www.penelopepilotproject.org

Learn more

Mountain flying is one of the topics featured at AOPA Aviation Summit 2010, November 11 through 13 at Long Beach, California. Lori MacNichol will conduct “Mountain Canyon Flying” on November 12. Visit the website for more information.