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Getting Girls Interested in Aviation

A how-to guide for flight schools, teachers, and, of course, parents

It’s 7:37 and this morning’s dilemma is about what my five-year-old daughter Rosie can take to school for science corner. It has to start with the letter of the week—“S”—and it has to fit in her backpack. Rosie is loosely enthusiastic. Yeah, she wants to take something. No, she doesn’t want me to force her to think creatively a whole hour before the pledge of allegiance.

I’m not much for brainstorming this early either, but we’ve got to do this. Panning the room I finally lock on a wooden model of the space shuttle Discovery, which sits on a low shelf in the den. It has no moving parts, and it’s not heavy enough to be a weapon.

Rosie’s eyes light up when I suggest it. Discovery is soon swaddled in bubble wrap, in Rosie’s backpack, and on its way to an adventure in kindergarten probably only matched by being on a real launch, something this model may never do.

Or maybe it could launch a whole career, if Rosie’s interest holds.

Astronauts have some of the best jobs government (or anyone else) can offer. I certainly wouldn’t want my firstborn to discount it. But I wonder, as I watch Rosie disappear into the crowd of students, how do I keep that sparkle in her eye when we are an aviation family?

She’s bound to rebel because flying is something her parents love dearly, and because all kids go through that stage. Yet I’d hate to lose her. She’s so excited by aviation. How do I keep her fascinated enough so she wants to fly when she’s old enough to take action on her desires?

I’m sure I’m not the only parent with this problem. Girls in particular need encouragement to keep them on the learning track that leads to aviation careers. Numerous studies show that girls ditch math and science in middle school because it’s no longer cool to be smart that way.

If my girls want to be pilots, controllers, airport managers, or even astronauts and engineers, they’ll have to stick it out and stay involved in math and science, even if it’s not the most popular thing to do. Worried as I am, I’ve studied this issue, hoping to get a head start on Rosie before she figures out what I’m up to and tries that rebellion thing.

Here are a few techniques my research uncovered for keeping a youngster’s eyes twinkling with interest in anything flyable.

1. Take your daughter flying. Better yet, put a headset on her, put her the right seat, and put her to work. I’ve found that a few cues are all even a five-year old needs to start learning pilotage. Let’s face it, before kids can read, the whole world’s a picture to them. A sectional chart is simply another rendition of one of those wonderful “Where’s Waldo” pages. If the two of you plan the flight, you’ll be surprised at how quickly your youngster learns to recognize landmarks and keep you on the straight track to your destination.

Older children can be even more helpful copilots. By the time I was ten years old, changing radio frequencies, dialing in transponder squawk codes, and tuning VORs were within my capabilities. Supervision is the key. Every good pilot I’ve ever flown right seat with checked frequencies before transmitting. Two heads are better than one in the cockpit, if both brains remain engaged at all times.

Make sure your daughter flies up front with you so she can see firsthand why you love it. When she is old enough, she may want to learn to fly, too. She needs to be 14 years old to solo a glider, 16 years old to solo an airplane, and 17 years old to earn her recreational or private pilot certificate.

When that time comes, offer her flying lessons or hitch her up with one of the many organizations that cater to young aviators, such as the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), Junior ROTC, and the Boy Scouts Aviation Explorers (it’s co-ed). The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), CAP, and NASA all run summer programs for youths. Look them up.

2. If you don’t fly but your daughter’s still a fan, encourage her. Just hanging out at the local fixed-base operation on a weekend is an aviation education. Show up often enough and you and your daughter are sure to meet an empathetic pilot or two willing to give you a ride. In lieu of that, contact the local EAA chapter and ask when it will fly “Young Eagles.” This EAA program works to interest youngsters in aviation by giving them their first airplane ride.

To expand your daughter’s aviation horizons (and, perhaps, yours), visit the FAA facilities in your area. Flight service stations, control towers, air route traffic control centers, and terminal radar approach controls are always happy to give tours, especially when you arrange them in advance. Airlines are also keen on the good public relations they earn when they give kids a tour of their operations and cockpits.

If you have a tough time getting any of these organizations to open their doors to just you and your kid, take the idea to your daughter’s school teachers. They’ll be happy to do a class project, and the FAA even has teacher curricula to help them design an aviation module. Your daughter’s teacher is more likely to be successful than you alone in setting up a class field trip to an airport.

3. Teach her as much as you can about airplanes. Why do they fly, what is their history, how do they work. Airplanes, or at least the concept of airplanes, have been around since Leonardo Da Vinci. You can get books on airplanes from the library and read them together. You can go to air shows and talk to the people who restore and fly antique and classic airplanes. Talk to the aerobatic show pilots, too. More women than you might think are turning airplanes upside down and sideways. They enjoy talking about it to the crowd, too.

Aviation museums are great places to linger for hours looking at and, sometimes, even touching or climbing on all manner of aircraft. In addition to the major museums, such as Kermit Weeks Fantasy of Flight near Orlando, Florida; the Museum of Naval Aviation at Pensacola, Florida; the Air Force’s huge Dayton, Ohio facility; EAA’s Oshkosh, Wisconsin or Lakeland, Florida facilities; and the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum, hundreds of small museums are scattered across the nation. One may be near you. If you fly the World Wide Web, chances are you’ve come across a number of museum lists, which are web page staples.

Regardless which museum you visit, the curators are a knowledgeable bunch of people who do what they do out of pure affection for flight. Stick around long enough to strike up a conversation and you and your daughter will be rewarded handsomely with fascinating information that few people may know. Not a kid has been born who can resist a photorealistic multimedia adventure in surround-sound, something all the larger museums offer.

If you do some of your own aircraft maintenance, let your daughter get greasy with you. Not only will she benefit from the basic skills you can show her, but also from the one-on-one time you share. There’s nothing like understanding an aircraft from the inside out to make a good pilot.

If you don’t work on your own airplane, you may want to build and fly either U-control or RC (remote control) models. It’s a hobby that requires skill and cooperation, but it has a lower entry fee than most aviation-related activities.

4. Expose her to role models. Why don’t more women fly? Many people say it’s because little girls never see women in aviation-related careers, particularly as pilots and technicians. Girls don’t know they can be pilots and technicians, too.

Armed with this fact, you should take time to expose your daughter to role models, women pilots, flight instructors, mechanics, and engineers. Women don’t account for much more than six percent of the total U.S. pilot population and less than one percent of the mechanics, but still, thousands of women in aviation make good livings and enjoy good jobs with great benefits. Your daughter needs to see that girls grow up and enter these careers, If they don’t, your daughter is likely to turn to you and say, “Yeah, this is cool, but girls don’t fly.”

If she does that, tell her about astronaut Shannon Lucid, a mom, a multiengine-rated pilot, a biochemical engineer, and the holder of a space flight endurance record. Astronaut Eileen Collins flew jets for the Air Force and taught math before piloting the space shuttle. She recently became a mom, too. Both women have managed to build excellent careers in aviation and have a family life at the same time. Not easy, but very doable.

Need more proof? The directors of an organization called Women In Aviation, International (WAI) are happy to introduce your daughter to a real female airline mechanic or airline captain, an airport manager or an FBO executive. When they meet, your daughter can ask questions to her heart’s delight. WAI is a networking group created to bring women from all walks of aviation together and to educate others about the opportunities that exist for women in the industry.

Good aviation careers are within reach of today’s young girls—if they want them. The trick, I think, is keeping that spark alive in my little girl’s eye, so each time she hears an airplane overhead, she turns toward it and thinks, “I could do that.” As long as she knows it’s possible, the door stays open. And an open door is the beginning of some wonderful futures.

Role model: Lieutenant Colonel Eileen M. Collins, U.S. Air Force

For a 4,000-plus hour U.S. Air Force pilot who has flown more than 30 different aircraft, an extra 200 hours in one type is hardly noteworthy. Unless, of course, those hours are logged in NASA’s space shuttle.

Lt. Col. Eileen M. Collins’ aviation career began in 1979, when she graduated from U.S. Air Force Undergraduate Pilot Training. She instructed at Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma for three years and transferred to Travis AFB, California. At Travis, she commanded a C-141 heavy transport aircraft and taught others to fly it between 1983-1985.

Collins prepared for her Air Force career by earning an associate’s degree in mathematics/science, a bachelor’s degree in math and economics, and, later, a master’s degree in operations research and another master’s in space systems management. She also got married and had a daughter.

After a year of study at the Air Force Institute of Technology, the Air Force assigned her to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, where she was an assistant professor in mathematics and a T-41 (180-hp Cessna 172) instructor pilot. She was a student at the Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards AFB, California in 1990 when, NASA selected her for its astronaut program. She earned her astronaut wings in July 1991.

Collins became the first woman to pilot the space shuttle. Her first mission was also the first flight of the joint Russian-American Space Program, and during it, STS-63 rendezvoused with the Russian Space Station Mir. Collins has logged 198 hours and 29 minutes in space, and her next mission is scheduled for May 1997. She will fly STS-84, the sixth space shuttle mission to rendezvous with Space Station Mir.—Greg Laslo

Role model: Patty Wagstaff

In the “Pioneers of Flight Gallery” at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum, a sleek aerobatic airplane painted in BF Goodrich Aerospace colors sits next to a Lockheed Vega once flown by Amelia Earhart. While the airplanes represent different eras, their pilots have a lot in common.

Aerobatic pilot Patty Wagstaff has circumnavigated the globe one air show at a time. Wagstaff is a six-time member of the U.S. Aerobatic Team and three-time National Aerobatic Champion—the first and only woman to win it even once. She also was the 1993 International Aerobatic Club Champion, and a six-time recipient of the Betty Skelton “First Lady of Aerobatics” Award.

Wagstaff took her first flying lesson in a Cessna 185 in 1979. Since that flight, she’s hard to keep off the ground. Wagstaff holds a commercial certificate with multiengine, instrument, seaplane, and helicopter ratings. She is also a multiengine and instrument instructor. During Wagstaff’s off-season, she teaches a spin and unusual attitude recovery course in AT-6 and T-28 warbirds, and flies as a movie stunt pilot.—Greg Laslo

Role model: Dr. Shannon W. Lucid

Traveling a long distance to get home is nothing new for Dr. Shannon W. Lucid. Born in Shanghai, China, she grew up in Oklahoma and considers the state home. In 1996 she moved to the Russian space station, Mir, for 188 days, 4 hours, 0 minutes, and 14 seconds.

When she returned to Earth, to reunite with her husband, two daughters, and a son, Lucid held two space-flight records. In addition to having spent more time in space on a single mission, she has spent more time in orbit than any U.S. woman—5,354 hours (223 days) in five flights.

An instrument- and multiengine-rated commercial pilot, Lucid earned a doctorate in biochemistry from the University of Oklahoma. NASA selected her for the shuttle program in 1978, and she made her first flight in 1979.

As mission specialist, she conducts experiments carried on the shuttle. This is nothing new for Lucid, who has held a variety of academic research positions including research associate at the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation from 1974 until she was selected into the astronaut program in 1978.

That medical research proved useful on STS-58 aboard Columbia. Lucid conducted neurovestibular, cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary, metabolic, and musculoskeletal medical experiments. NASA considers that 14-day flight to be the most successful Spacelab mission ever flown.—Greg Laslo

As originally published in August 2008 edition of Flight Training magazine.

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