On a windy Saturday in early March, the Jackson Jet Center at Boise Air Terminal/Gowen Field (KBOI) was abuzz with activity and energy. A fleet of nine aircraft—mostly Cessnas, a Piper Cherokee and two Kitfoxes—was busy giving rides all day. An FBO with an active ramp isn’t unusual, but the passengers were. They were all women.
The event was the third annual Fly it Forward Day sponsored by the Ponderosa Aero Club. Fly it Forward is a global event started about five years ago by Women of Aviation Worldwide. Flying clubs, aviation museums and organizations participate by holding local events to celebrate women’s accomplishments in aviation and aerospace and to attract more girls and women into aviation as a hobby or a career choice.
“I’ve been trying to figure out why women don’t fly. We have 115 members, five of them are women,” Sheri “Sharki” Kontra, a Ponderosa staff member said. She and Ponderosa Board Member Jennifer Christiano have organized the event each year and it keeps getting bigger and bigger. The first year about 55 women participated. Last year the number grew to about 100 and this year 135 women and teenagers participated.
"There were quite a few enthusiastic women, more so than before,” Sharki said. “In the past more husbands and males showed up. But this year there were a lot more women that came without their male partners.”
The highlight of the day is a 30-minute flight, but the event featured several stations including a mini-ground school. “Some women aren’t sure what to expect or may be intimidated," Sharki said. “But that’s part of what the mini ground school is about—educating them, allowing them to ask questions ahead of time eases some of the stress or anxiety and fear.”
When women weren’t flying, they could meet Col. Nicole Washington who gave a presentation about her experience flying Apache helicopters in combat in Afghanistan, or listen to ATC with someone explaining what was being said. There was a demonstration by the airport fire department and a static display of aircraft including a Hawker Hunter jet.
All the activities are meant to inspire teenagers. “They’re the ones we can really inspire to fly because they’re at an age where they are becoming interested in what they are going to do with their lives,” Sharki said. “The younger generations are finding out that women can do anything a boy can do and can make just as good of a pilot. That is why we’re trying to inspire teenagers.”
Although the event hasn’t generated large numbers of new women pilots or members for Ponderosa yet, Sharki believes it will make a difference in the long run. “Eventually we’ll get more women. Just flying around on my own I hear more women in the air than I have in the last two years.”
One thing hosting Fly it Forward has done is given Ponderosa a way to build relationships in the aviation community and generate positive press. The club invites other flying schools, the T-Craft Aero Club in Nampa, Idaho, the Air National Guard, and other organizations to participate.
“We realized the goodwill part of the event is where we are all benefitting,” Sharki said. “It gives Ponderosa a name in the community so people have actually heard of us. We share this event with all the other aviation organizations and schools and the Jackson Jet Center. Everyone loves the publicity, the airport loves the publicity and it really helps us in the community.”
In fact, Ponderosa was recognized recently with the Governor’s Brightest Star Award for Volunteerism for a non-for-profit organization, which honors organizations for their contributions to the community.
But it all comes back to giving women an opportunity to do something they have never done before or imagined was possible. “Every year we get one young woman who has never been off the ground before. They’re always about 16 years old and adorable,” Sharki said. "Some have never been in an airliner before, so this is their first experience with flight."
“It’s so exciting to talk to these women because they don’t know what to expect and afterwards they’re speechless,” Sharki said. “Everybody gets out of the airplane and has a huge smile on their face and say it’s been the most amazing experience.”