March is Women’s History month and I recently attended several events that offer snapshots of women, and men, in the aerospace industry. In Dallas, Women In Aviation International (WAI) held its 26th annual conference, in Tucson, Arizona, the Pima Air and Space Museum opened a new exhibit entitled Women In Flight, and Southwest Airlines graduated its 307th class of flight attendants. And there were more moments.
WAI held its first conference in 1990 and incorporated in 1995 as a networking association for women wishing to enter the field of aerospace. By then, women were finally legally allowed to become commercial pilots for the airlines or military pilots. Emily Howell became the first permanent female pilot for a U.S. airline in 1973 and the military began training non-combatant female pilots in the mid-1970s, but women were still barred from combat flying until 1993 when women won the right to enter fighter pilot training. By the time of the Iraq War, women were flying in combat roles and WAI conferences became a celebration of the arrival of women in all cockpits. With all options now open, the conference offers an educational and job fair atmosphere to women at all stages of their careers, but especially to those just starting out.
The 2015 WAI conference boasted an attendance of 4,572 including 183 international attendees. One of the most successful aspects of the organization is the strong scholarship program: this year WAI, its sponsors and members, awarded over $600,000 in scholarships ranging from private pilot training, to type ratings in airliners, to maintenance courses to aviation universities. The exhibit hall is a hotbed of enthusiasm for both vendors and attendees. For example, once the bastion of airlines finally recruiting women to join their ranks, it is now a prime recruitment center for both female and male commercial pilots. So, just when women finally get a foot in the door, the men see a good thing too, and WAI accommodates all of its members. Speakers at the conference included Colleen Barrett, President Emeritus of Southwest Airlines, Heather Penney, retired U.S. Air Force (USAF) and racing pilot now with Lockheed Martin, and Pat Blum, co-founder of Corporate Angel, a humanitarian organization that provides transportation for cancer patients on corporate aircraft.
The lucky winner, right, of a Boeing 737-700/-800 type rating certificate scholarship, donated by the Boeing Company. The scholarship pays for an intense training course to qualify to pilot this short to medium range airliner, the best-selling commercial airliner in history.
At the same time military women walked the aisles of the WAI exhibit hall; some took the Marine Corps chin-up challenge, while others visited the Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard booths. Major manufacturers and aftermarket suppliers were there too, recruiting for their workforce and selling their products. Colleges and universities, museums, authors, aerospace organizations, and private and government employers round out the hall.
I was fortunate to join these up and coming women of the United States Coast Guard (USCG) at lunch--fully vested search and rescue (SAR) and combat search and rescue (CSAR) pilots who fly patrol and transport aircraft and helicopters. Someday you may be stranded on a roof in a hurricane or capsized in the water and one of these USCG crewmembers will come to your aid. The impressive group from left to right:
-LT Julie Padgett, HC-144, Corpus Christie TX
-AET2 Kim Dechmerowski, MH-65D Dolphin, San Francisco - She is the first and only counter drug precision marksman (aviation) and second and only active female Ports Waterways Coastal Security (PWCS) marksman (aviation).
-Kim Dechmerowski's mother
-LTJG Staci Kronberg, HC-130H, Barbers Point, HI
-LT Sarah Bradley, MH-65D, Barbers Point, HI
-LTJG Allison Majcher, HC-130H, Sacramento, CA
-LTJG Renaqua Russell, HC-144, Corpus Christi, TX
-LT Caitlin Mitchell Wurster, MH-65D, Atlantic City, NJPhoto Credit: Courtesy Staci Kronberg
The next day I participated in the opening of the Women In Flight exhibit at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona. I was pleased to contribute a short history for the exhibit and join those who donated artifacts, photographs, or their own stories. I listened to U.S. Congresswoman Martha McSally of Arizona’s second district and a 26-year USAF veteran with 2,600 flight hours who was the first female fighter pilot to fly in combat and first to command a fighter squadron in combat. Sharon O’Neal recalled persevering to be an engineer, even when she was the only woman in her class, and becoming the first female engineering deputy at Raytheon Missile Systems. Major Christy Brannon shrugs her shoulder when traveling with a male crewmember who is often assumed to be the captain of their C-130J cargo aircraft-- no, she is. She knows she earned her job and has the USAF’s full confidence in her skills and leadership so she isn’t bothered by those who don’t understand.
Pictured below are two friends of mine who are private pilots and former National Air and Space Museum volunteers (they worked on the Pitts S-1C Little Stinker and Curtiss CW-1 Junior). Eight years ago Cindy Rousseau made a mid-life career change to Southwest Airlines flight attendant. Last week she pinned the wings on a new Southwest flight attendant – her husband George. This 307th class is composed of 83 women and men of all ages and ethnic or religious backgrounds and that afternoon in Dallas, you couldn’t have found a more enthusiastic and joyous group of new employees.
This is a 737-800 Next Generation series airplane, shown in Southwest Airlines livery, the likely “workplace” for the Rousseaus and hopefully the Boeing scholarship winner. Photo Credit: Stephen M. Keller
As my flight climbed out of Phoenix, Arizona for Washington, DC, a female voice announced, “This is Captain Cochran (what a coincidence but no relation to me) from the flight deck and we welcome you aboard…” I caught a glimpse of her when deplaning and wished I could have caught her eye but she was deep in paperwork and probably thinking about her next flight.
Finally, last weekend, the National Air and Space Museum hosted its annual Women in Aviation and Space Day at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, and among the many successful women mentoring young women and girls were two particularly accomplished military women: Lt. Col. Nicole Malachowski, F-15E and F-16 pilot and the first female pilot for the USAF Thunderbirds, and Captain Monica Marusceac, AV-8 Harrier pilot and second USMC female combat pilot. All of these snapshots surely prove to me that barriers have been broken and though some doubts may still linger, they won’t last for long. Aerospace has room for all.