After a two-year in-person hiatus, Women in Aviation International welcomed more than 4,000 people to its annual meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, March 17 through 19.
“We’re back!” WAI President and CEO Allison McKay announced March 17. Though the organization held a virtual meeting in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, the “energy just isn’t the same” as at an in-person meeting, McKay said. Longtime flight instructor and astronaut applicant Wally Funk was omnipresent at the show, dispensing hugs, smiles, and thumbs-ups when she was not signing books or accepting accolades. Funk received the 2021 Katherine and Marjorie Stinson Trophy from the National Aeronautic Association during a ceremony on March 17. She was part of a group of women known as the Mercury 13 who trained for space flight in the 1960s but ultimately did not get to go on any missions because the privately funded project was disbanded. In July 2021 she flew aboard Blue Origin’s New Shepard with Jeff Bezos on its inaugural ride into space. (Funk is also the sixth recipient of the R.A. ”Bob” Hoover Trophy to be presented March 23 in Washington, D.C.)
“If flying is so easy to fall in love with, then why are there so few women pilots out there?” U.S. Air Force Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost said March 18. Under 10 percent of pilots are women, said Van Ovost, who is commander of U.S. Transportation Command, one of 11 Combatant Commands in the Department of Defense. “This is an especially relevant issue in the military where [women] are less than 5 percent, and African American females represent less than 1 percent.”
“Military and civil aviation has long been a boy’s club,” Van Ovost said. “We are making a change.” The military is working to remove obstacles that keep women from remaining in the service, she said, noting that primary caregivers now receive 12 weeks of paid parental leave, up from six weeks, and both members of dual military couples can request extended leave. The Air Force now gives either spouse the option to request to separate from active duty for 12 months after the birth or adoption of a child, she said. Active-duty members can transition to reserves for up to three years to spend more time with family, she said.
Van Ovost said mentorship is key toward attracting and retaining women to aviation, and said she hopes to see a day when there are no more “firsts and onlys” and women are a foundational part of every team at every level. “Representation is critical, and mentors make the difference,” she said. “Think about the legacy you’re creating,” she told the assembly. “It’s not about a single engagement. We must have solid, ongoing conversations.”
Niloofar Rahmani, the first woman fixed-wing Air Force pilot in Afghanistan’s history, said her father gave her the confidence to “find my voice” and seek an untraditional role in a society that did not value women’s rights. “I am the same human that the men are,” she said.
Rahmani flew the Cessna AC–208 Combat Caravan, during which time she defied a traditional ban on women transporting dead or wounded soldiers when she transported injured soldiers during one mission. Her family received threats from other family members and the Taliban. They have since sought asylum in the United States, and Rahmani completed Lockheed C–130 training with the U.S. Air Force in 2016.
“My family…never let me give up,” Rahmani said. “I only succeeded the day I decided to overcome my fear—the fear of raising my voice.”
“When you accept yourself the way you are, the world recognizes you, and that’s what happened to me,” Rahmani said.
WAI sponsor organizations, including AOPA, handed out more than $473,000 in scholarships throughout the event. Scholarships included money for type ratings, primary and advanced flight training, maintenance training, and more.
More than 200 girls ages 8 to 13 joined the conference on March 19 for the annual Girls in Aviation Day. They built and flew paper airplanes, learned how to speak aviation lingo, worked with VFR sectional charts, built scale airports, flew drones, and learned about flying helicopters.
The next WAI conference will be held February 23 through 25 in Long Beach, California.