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Closing aviation's gender gapClosing aviation's gender gap

It starts with giving lots of first flights

No pilot takes sharing the fun of aviation more seriously than Dianna Stanger—and she has trophies and awards to prove it—but now she’s outdone herself.

Dianna Stanger with WOAW Fly It Forward Challenge passengers Caroline Whittemore, Lily Pena-Smith, Gretchen O’Donnell, and Mia Hollister with Stanger's EC135 helicopter. Photo courtesy of Jasmine Gordon.

Following a week of giving introductory helicopter rides to women and girls at New Mexico’s Albuquerque International Sunport during Women of Aviation Worldwide Week March 6 through 12, she can stake her claim to an astonishing statistic: Since she has been flying in WOAW’s annual Fly It Forward Challenge, starting in 2012, Stanger has given first flights to more than 2,100 participants, including several hundred this year, helping to fulfill event founder and airline pilot Mireille Goyer’s vision of closing the gender gap in introductions to aviation.

Pilots participating in Fly It Forward “simply invite a girl of any age who has never flown in a small aircraft (airline flights are OK) to go on a first flight experience during Women Of Aviation Worldwide Week,” according to the event organizer, the Institute for Women of Aviation Worldwide.

The institute was expected to give away $15,000 in awards and scholarships during the week, and said it has helped 140,000 girls and women learn about aviation and given 30,074 flights since the first event in 2010. There were 44,000 participants worldwide in 2016.

Results of the competition, including the awarding of the 2017 Most Dedicated Female Pilot Worldwide trophy to “the registered female pilot who conducts the most reported flights (girls reporting divided by number of passenger seats) during the week,” are expected to be announced March 29.

Stanger gave her rides—five passengers at a time in accordance with event rules—in her Eurocopter EC135 (now designated Airbus H135), an aircraft she acquired in 2015.

She confessed to being tired after all the week’s flying, but “it’s always worth it.”

“To get that much satisfaction in just seven days is just amazing,” she said by phone after returning to her home base in Port Lavaca, Texas, where she is the manager of the Calhoun County Airport. Stanger also chairs the board of directors of the humanitarian organization Angel Flight South Central.

As you would expect of a professional pilot, air racing champion, and tireless advocate for making aviation a female-friendly enterprise, Stanger puts an unforgettably educational touch on her 10-to-20-minute introductory flights.

Traffic permitting, she began the flights with a demonstration of the twin-engine helicopter’s vertical and horizontal capabilities, culminating in a hover—all to show how differently a helicopter is maneuvered from an airplane.

Flight above the mountainous high desert terrain near the airport followed; on some occasions it was possible to descend into canyons, “get some lift and go straight up.”

Some of the young ladies taking their first flights aboard the corporate-configured helicopter with big sliding doors, a VIP cabin, and excellent all-around visibility pitched in by helping with air traffic control communications, reading from prepared scripts of the required radio calls.

The responses from air traffic control made it clear that the spirit of encouragement was alive and well all around the airport.

“The tower would compliment them on saying things right over the radio,” Stanger said.

Also participating in sharing aviation with the participants were pilots and airplanes from Del Sol Aviation. (“Fulfilling your dreams in the sky is our mission.”)

With hot air balloons also famously present in Albuquerque, there were opportunities for close-up inspections, learning that an individual could earn a certificate for each type of aircraft, and discovering just how much activity takes place at an airport, Stanger said.

Fly WOAW event organizer Jasmine Gordon was encouraged by turnout estimates of about 1,200 participants in Albuquerque this year, more than twice last year’s 574, and confirming a trend of participation doubling year over year.

The sheer numbers of introductory flights Stanger has provided would make ample justification for past honors conferred on her, including being previously named the “Most Dedicated Female Pilot in The World.” But to get the truest sense of the satisfaction her activities provide, you have to get down to cases.

Three of the volunteers at the Fly It Forward flight line were girls who took their first rides in 2015, she said.

Even better: All three have since begun flight training, brought their mothers to the 2017 event, and enthusiastically shared their experiences in aviation with curious youngsters who stopped by the booth during the week of flight introductions.

“It was really special to watch,” Stanger said.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
AOPA Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Youth, Flight Training, Pilots

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