The world’s first licensed female pilot, a French socialite named Raymonde de Laroche, declared in 1910 that flying was ideal for women because it didn’t rely on strength as much as on physical and mental coordination.
No doubt Laroche and the pioneering women pilots who came after her hoped that others would follow their lead and flood the ranks of aviation.
More than 100 years later, it hasn’t happened. Here in the United States, women are in the House and in the Senate, the boardrooms of major businesses, and in the armed forces. And while they’re also at the airports, women represent a paltry 6 percent of the pilot population. What’s more, the number of women pilots has decreased in the last 15 years—keeping pace with the general decline in the pilot population—in spite of the fact that the number of women living in the United States increased by 30 percent during the same period.
A grassroots effort launched in 2010 seeks to reverse that trend. Getting women to the airport and introducing them to aviation was the goal of the 2010 Women Pilot Centennial. By the end of the year, pilots around the world had carried more than 1,600 girls and women aloft in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Laroche’s achievement. The effort became a yearlong competition to see which airport would be designated most “women friendly.” The winner was Oshawa Airport in Ontario, Canada, where pilots racked up 475 introductory flights. A close second was Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Washington, where 407 women and girls received introductory flights—173 of which were conducted in a single day.
International organizer Mireille Goyer had planned to celebrate the centennial by introducing women and girls to flying in France, the United States, and Canada. She broadened her approach to invite pilots everywhere to take up the cause.
The centennial has come and gone, but the goal continues in 2011. The week of March 7 through 13 was designated Women of Aviation Week as a part of the one-hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day (March 8). Once again, pilots are urged to put out the welcome mat by introducing girls and women to the world of flight.
There were prizes and recognition for categories such as Most Unusual Introductory Flight, Most Supportive Male Flight Instructor, and Most Dedicated Female Pilot. Some museums and flight schools are offering special programs. More details can be found at the website ( www.womenofaviationweek.org), which includes a detailed list of events planned in the United States, Canada, France, Ghana, and the United Kingdom. AOPA is a sponsor, along with Aircraft Spruce, SavvyGPS Pilot, and Windtee. Also on board are the producers of documentaries Breaking Through the Clouds, which tells the story of the 1929 Women’s Transcontinental Air Race, and Flyabout, a pilot’s story of her aviation-oriented “walkabout” in Australia.
The idea of getting as many women into the air as possible sounded just right to Victoria Neuville. Neuville learned about the Centennial of Women last year but couldn’t get involved at the time. A relative newcomer to Frederick, Maryland (she’s from Michigan), she has leapt into the local pilot community by organizing an event for this year’s Women of Aviation Week. Women Fly It Forward was scheduled for March 12 at Frederick Municipal Airport (FDK).
“I wanted to make sure that other girls weren’t afraid to start, or quit early from lack of support.”—Victoria Neuville
An instrument-rated private pilot, Neuville encountered some challenges while earning her certificate—she trained at three flight schools, with eight instructors, and flew “a billion” airplanes.
“I didn’t have much support when I was getting my ratings,” says Neuville. Her father and grandfathers were pilots—her great uncle was a World War II ace—and so she had plenty of role models, but not the emotional support she wanted. “I knew a lot of guys but I did not meet a single girl in my training. Girls need other girls for support. Since I had none of that, I wanted to make sure that other girls weren’t afraid to start, or quit early from lack of support.”
Neuville hopes to draw 300 women and girls to FDK, and she has put together a slate of activities, including prize drawings and speakers such as an air traffic controller, a wing walker, and a squadron from Andrews Air Force Base. There are incentives for the pilots, too: Neuville negotiated a 50-cent-per-gallon discount on aviation fuel from Landmark Aviation, the local FBO. Everyone who takes an introductory flight will be able to download a photo from a website to post on Facebook—and Neuville is aiming to see hundreds of profile pictures of smiling faces in airplanes.
“If one woman will fly, more will,” she says. “Aviation is such a great community. Every pilot I’ve met is so helpful and willing to share their aviation stories. I think women would, too. If they hear about more women in aviation, more women will come.”
Neuville works with Jon Harden of Aviation Insurance Resources in Frederick and says she is thrilled to have a job in aviation as well as the chance to fly Harden’s Cessna 172.
Neuville and Goyer share the desire to pay forward—or fly forward, if you will—their opportunities. “I believe the best way to thank a role model is to pay it forward by putting into application what you have learned from them,” Goyer says.
If you didn’t make it to the airport on March 12, the opportunity to take someone flying is as close as the next sunny day. Aviation has the reputation of being a boys’ club. We know it’s open to everyone. Invite a friend to share the sky with you.
E-mail the author at [email protected]. Photography by Chris Rose.