Their interest in aviation started with a spark—and success came from hard work. Successful women in aviation professions discussed both the people who inspired and encouraged them and the determination that carried them through in the seminar “Inspirational Women in Aviation” at AOPA Aviation Summit Sept. 23.
Women in Aviation International President Peggy Chabrian moderated a panel that ranged from a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) who paved the way for female military pilots during World War II to a young entrepreneur who grew up thinking that “The sky’s the limit” was aiming low.
Martha King of King Schools, Women Airforce Service Pilot Bee Haydu, Terrafugia Chief Operating Officer Anna Mracek Dietrich, and Navy Capt. Linda Wackerman recalled the people who introduced them to aviation and discussed their distinguished careers.
King said she started out flying with “grim determination” because she didn’t want to sit at home while her husband, John, was out at the airport having fun. Then she got hooked; the accomplished pilot and instructor is now a familiar face for a generation of pilots who trained using King Schools resources.
As the granddaughter of Milo Mracek, former chief of design engineering at McDonnell Douglas, Dietrich said she grew up with Mars rover mockups in the basement and the belief that “‘The sky’s the limit’ was not true”—she had witnessed the space program go farther than that, with her grandfather involved. She went to MIT to pursue a career in aerospace, but decided that the kind of career her grandfather had—seeing an idea through from start to finish—was now only possible in general aviation. So with others at MIT, she founded Terrafugia to create and bring to market a “roadable” light sport aircraft.
For Wackerman, the moment of inspiration came when her brother, six years older than her, got her a flying lesson for her thirteenth birthday. She loved it. After she joined the Navy, Wackerman found female mentors who had risen through the ranks. She went on to command a McDonnell Douglas C-9 (the Navy version of the DC-9) squadron; the mother of four is now a reservist and American Airlines pilot.
Dietrich and Wackerman said they drew inspiration from the women like Haydu who broke ground for women in aviation as WASP—as did Haydu herself.
“‘Me’ inspired me,” Haydu joked, explaining that she decided to stop feeling sorry for herself after, for financial reasons, her brother was able to go to college and she wasn’t. She took an aviation course at a New Jersey engineering school and then decided to try out flying.
“I said, well, why don’t I just go up for a lesson and see what this was all about. And I did—and I got hooked,” she said. The rest, as they say, is history—a history she recorded in her book Letters Home 1944-1945: Women Airforce Service Pilots.
Prove ‘em wrong
Square your shoulders, smile, be nice about it, and prove ‘em wrong: The advice, from a WASP Dietrich met at an aviation event, has carried Dietrich through some of the frustrating moments at airshows when attendees walked up and asked the company co-founder, who has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, if they could speak to an engineer. The women on the panel have encountered doubters in their careers in aviation, but each expressed confidence that hard work wins out in the end.
While presenters acknowledged encountering some prejudices in the male-dominated world of aviation, stories of encouragement outnumbered them. Wackerman said women like Haydu and her fellow WASPs, along with Rear Adms. Robin Braun and Wendi Carpenter, were inspirational to her, and she hasn’t had problems as a woman in the Navy. (She has encountered gaffes, she admitted, such as when an airshow attendee asked her, a Navy flight instructor, if she was there to serve the coffee.)
“It’s all right to be a woman in a man’s world,” Wackerman said, noting that women can bring sensitivity to the cockpit. Do a 200-percent job, and you’ll gain respect from your peers, she advised.
Haydu agreed. She recounted a story of one male B-26 instructor who said he didn’t want to teach a group of women. One of the WASPs got back at him, Haydu said: She married him.
“If you just do your job, and do it well, eventually you will be accepted,” Haydu said.