Women who have climbed to the top of their aviation fields and completed feats many would have thought impossible shared secrets to their success during the twenty-seventh annual International Women in Aviation Conference March 10 through 12 in Nashville.
Nearly 5,000 men and women from 16 countries attended the event to apply for airline jobs, attend inspirational and educational seminars, and hear from leading women in the aerospace industry, including the head of Boeing’s defense sector and the U.S. Secretary of the Air Force.
Leanne Caret, president of Boeing Defense, Space, and Security’s Global Services and Support business unit—the first woman in the company’s history to hold that position—said she encourages her team to take risks. “It’s OK to fail,” she said. Caret noted that taking jobs that are uncomfortable forces growth and cutting-edge questions that lead to innovation.
“This amazing time is our time,” Caret said, adding that each day offers opportunities for men and women in aviation and aerospace to shape the future of the industry.
U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, the second woman to hold that position, said that her rise to this prestigious civilian position “started from one colossal failure.”
James earned degrees from Duke and Columbia universities and had completed a portfolio of experience by her early 20s that she thought would assure her a position in the Foreign Service that she had dreamed about much of her life. When she received a rejection letter, James said, “I was devastated.”
Living in Washington, D.C., and needing a job to pay for her rent, James applied for and accepted a position working as a civilian for the Department of the Army. “That original failure and that first job” led to 10 years of work on Capitol Hill, 17 years in the private sector, and then an invitation to compete for Secretary of the Air Force.
“Be prepared to zigzag in your life,” she counseled general session attendees March 11, adding that the key is to bounce back after the failures.
As Secretary of the Air Force, James said she is working to improve diversity and inclusion in the Air Force, mitigate deployment and family issues, increase access to pilot positions, eliminate sexual assault against women and men on bases, and foster mentorship.
“Sometimes it just takes one person” to affect change, James said, “and that one person could be you.”
Pilot and motivational speaker Jessica Cox detailed what it was like to grow up, learn to drive, and learn to fly without arms. Cox, who was born without arms, said she wore fake arms for many years because she had a fear of rejection. Once she gathered the courage to go to school without the fake arms, Cox said she has never worn them since.
Despite her confidence in her abilities, Cox has had to prove herself to others.
She had to pass her driver’s test twice in order to prove her skills to skeptics and keep her driver’s license. And, she went through many instructors and different aircraft before finding a CFI to teach her how to fly in an Ercoupe. The biggest challenge to learning to fly the Ercoupe was figuring out how to fasten the airplane’s four-point harness, she said. Cox recalled how she spent 45 minutes working to fasten and loosen the harness before sliding down into the seat and tightening the straps.
Now Cox travels the world as a motivational speaker, determined not to let fear get the best of her. Asking audience members to think about their own “fake arms,” Cox encouraged conference attendees on March 12 to not let fear rule their lives either.
Fear, she said, is just “false evidence appearing real.”
During the 2016 International Women in Aviation Conference, the organization celebrated several records.
WAI President Dr. Peggy Chabrian announced March 11 that the conference boasted a record 170 companies taking part in the exhibit hall.
In addition, she said that the nonprofit group reached a milestone of giving away $10 million in scholarships to women and men since the scholarship program started in 1995. The group awarded 126 individual scholarships during the conference, totaling more than $600,000.
The conference, which doubles as a large career fair, also issued 4,640 Fast Passes for interviews with airlines to 2,064 members.
The organization dubbed the third day of the event Girls in Aviation Day, and almost 300 participants were introduced to various aspects of aviation. Astronaut and author Dr. Rhea Seddon’s luncheon address inspired young girls who swarmed the author’s book signing table to talk to her and get a photo and autograph after the luncheon.
Women in Aviation will host a regional event in Seattle Sept. 16 and 17, and its national conference will take place at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, March 2 through 4.