License to Learn

Women in Aviation 2011

May 1, 2011

Rod MachadoEvery few years, I find my way to Reno, Nevada, to attend some aviation function. This year I was there for the Women in Aviation International (WAI) conference. Snow, ice, and turbulence made travel in my small airplane impractical, so the journey began on Southwest Airlines.

I’d never flown Southwest before, mainly because of my natural fear of open seating, which typically involves kicking, biting, and scratching the person in front of you. That wasn’t what I experienced on Southwest, though. In fact, the open seating policy actually accelerated the boarding process, mainly because people reach for the first seat they see in the same way teenage girls reach for Justin Bieber’s tiny little limbs at his concerts.

Southwest’s crews are known for their sense of humor, so we laughed and carried on up to the point where a nasty Reno snowstorm and turbulence forced us to execute a missed approach. That’s when the laughter stopped and the cabin became anxiously silent, except for the sound of a lone baby whimpering and crying—and that could well have been me. Not to fear. Our crew entered a holding pattern and waited for a previously launched landing probe to reevaluate the runway conditions. After that probe landed safely and taxied to its gate, we followed it in for an uneventful landing, which was accompanied by a massive sitting ovation for the captain’s performance (the seatbelt sign, remember?).

For me, the festivities in Reno began the next morning, when I walked into the WAI conference room to address a ballroom full of enthusiastic attendees. My main mission was to inform the audience that during my 41 years in aviation, I had never known anyone who wanted a flying job in aviation and didn’t get one—that is, as long as they were tenacious in pursuit of that job. Sure, they had to meet the minimum medical and pilot qualifications, but they did get a job. This even applies to the worst pilot I’ve ever met who, despite his questionable flying skills, got a dynamite job. Literally. He was hired to transport dynamite in a Beech D–18 to desert construction sites (apparently freight fright prevented others from claiming that job for themselves). Since he returned to the airport every evening, I have to assume that sitting on a box of explosives motivated him to improve his landing skills.

Let me be clear here. I’m not saying that the first job everyone gets is necessarily the job of their dreams. After all, some young pilots who dreamed about flying a Boeing 777 started their careers by transporting boxes of 7-Up in a Cessna 150 freighter. But it’s flying, right?

For those seeking an aviation job, the WAI exhibit floor has to be the best-kept secret in aviation. Here you’ll find booths containing talkative representatives from nearly every major airline. Having been to more than a few aviation career fairs over the years, I’ve never seen more human resources personnel in one place at one time. It’s entirely worth joining WAI just for a pass to the exhibit floor (and there are many other reasons to join). In fact, a college professor friend of mine brought 17 of her male aviation students to the convention for a little networking and career research. You don’t need to be a female to be a member of WAI, so stop plucking those eyebrows, pal.

One thing that deeply impressed me was the caliber of young folks I met at the convention. While standing in line for coffee, I chatted with a petite young lady who looked like she was in her early 20s. Turned out that she began flight instructing at 19, then flew Lockheed Electras and DC–6s for a freight company, and now flies big jets for American Airlines. Now that’s impressive. Then she kindly asked about me and what airplanes I’d flown. Wisely, I simply offered that I was fully qualified on Microsoft Flight Simulator and left it at that. I’m just glad she hadn’t heard anything about a crying baby on a recent Southwest flight into Reno.

Another thing that impressed me was the large number of young military people in attendance. At first, I thought the Pentagon had assumed control of the hotel, turning it into something like a “NORAD 6.” It turns out that many WAI members now elect to join the military as a means of advancing their aviation careers. Think about it. If you qualify, you can forgo flying freight in a Cessna 150 and gain your experience in the front seat of a mighty military aircraft. One young lady I met had a passion for helicopters and search-and-rescue operations. She’s now a helicopter commander for the Coast Guard (the potential for off-duty aquatic sports here should not be lost on you, either). So if you’re willing to commit some time to serving our country (a noble enterprise in my opinion), this might be a way to jump-start your aviation career.

I am a big fan of aviation conventions. AOPA Summit, EAA AirVenture, Sun ’n Fun, and Women in Aviation International are some of my favorites. In my opinion, WAI is as beneficial as any aviation job fair you’ll ever attend. There are lots of reasons to attend, and even more reasons if you’re thinking about an aviation career. You’ll have a great time, meet some fascinating people, and quite possibly find a job in aviation.

The 2012 International Women in Aviation Conference takes place March 8 through 10 in Dallas.

Rod Machado is a CFI and aviation speaker with more than 8,000 flight hours. Visit the author’s blog.