Every year, individuals who are affiliated with aviation gather, in growing numbers, for the Women in Aviation International (WAI) conference. This nonprofit organization is dedicated to the encouragement and advancement of women in all aviation career fields and interests. It is very important to note that membership is diverse and not limited to women. Among the ranks are commercial, corporate, military and general aviation pilots, astronauts, maintenance technicians, air traffic controllers, business owners, educators, journalists, flight attendants, high school and university students, air show performers, airport managers and so many others (of both genders).
In the late 1980s, Dr. Peggy Chabrian, a member of the faculty at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, recognized the need to promote opportunities for women in the fields related to aviation. In 1990, she founded WAI and held the first conference at the university in Prescott, Ariz. In 1994, WAI was formally organized as a non-profit, and as the saying goes, the rest is history.
Women in Aviation International membership is now greater than 12,000. Like many non-profit organization, WAI maintains regional chapters that hold their own gatherings and events in support of the mission and its members. Chapters are found throughout the United States (43 affiliated with colleges/universities), and all other continents (with the obvious exception of Antarctica).
Last month, (March 2018) the 29th annual conference was held in Reno, Nev. Reported attendance was 3,200 individuals which included 114 international representatives from 21 countries. Attendees came from every age group and facet of the aviation/aerospace industry, including the unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAV) sector. In addition to highly interesting and relevant topics presented in sessions, the exhibit hall hosted 162 separate companies, colleges/universities, government agencies, associations, and other entities interested in connecting with the membership.
The organization’s dedication to supporting the aviation pursuits of those at every stage of life is evident in its scholarship program. At the annual luncheon, 142 scholarships were awarded totaling $695,500 to be used toward academic pursuits, lifestyle enhancement, and flight training (including type ratings). Since 1995, $11.5 million has been awarded in scholarships.
Beyond the statistics that demonstrate WAI’s success and dedication is the camaraderie, profound sense of community and the inspiration attendees experience. I have attended the conference for 16 years and always find something to propel me in my passions. A lot of the fuel I receive is from talking to others who visit the booth I (wo)man with my colleagues from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. We talk to those who are attending for the first time who share their exuberance; we talk to repeat visitors, many who haven’t missed a single conference; our alumni who are living the dreams they pursued as students; we talk to veterans and active military, and to our current and our prospective students. Probably most importantly, we get a chance to talk to those who influence others into considering this amazing field – aviation. Many will never take the controls of an aircraft, but there are nearly countless ways to participate, vocationally or recreationally.
For a few years, the conference seemed to become a hiring event and the aisles held lines of men and women awaiting their few minutes of face-time with interviewers. In my opinion, that shifted the focus of the event and diluted its mission. I’m happy to report that in 2018, a solid compromise was reached; hiring information sessions were held in break-out rooms providing opportunities to job seekers without disrupting the flow of the exhibit hall. I heard many positive comments from attendees and exhibitors about the change.
Girls in Aviation Day is held each year on Saturday, the last day of the conference. Parents bring their (mostly) daughters, leaders bring their troops, teachers bring students and high school-aged girls make their own way to the conference to learn about a future in aviation/aerospace. A panel of impressive, high achieving women professionals is held to inform the girls about the breadth of career opportunities, guest speakers inspire them with tales of the adventures they’ve had or challenges they’ve conquered, hands-on activities demonstrate some facet of the industry, and a college fair points them toward their opportunities.
While the girls are receiving their inspiration, the educational sessions continue to inform and inspire members. In all the years I’ve attended, I’ve only been to one session, but I always review the topics and ask some of the visitors to our booth about the sessions they’ve attended. The list of presentations always has something for everyone and often attendees are conflicted when two or more sessions that interest them run concurrently. The organizers do a great job of holding session that provide relevant and compelling information. Topics covered ranged from the practical, (e.g. What Do You Really Want to Ask ATC?; Are you ready for the ADS-B mandate?; Emergency! Getting It Right When Things Go Wrong) to historic, (e.g. Night Witches and Soviet Women Fighter Pilots of WWII and WASP Then and Now: The Women Who Changed the Skies) to those that could be characterized as sociological or cultural.
One attendee told me about the sessions she attended in that latter category. Kay, is an alumna of Embry-Riddle who is married to an Air Force U-2 pilot stationed at Beale Air Force Base in California, just a little over two hours from Reno. Though she herself is not currently working in the aviation industry, as a pilot herself, she is passionate about the field and is an aviator’s wife –criteria linking her to WAI. Kay (really her first initial) attended sessions that, “Fed her soul,” she reported.
An Aviation Marriage, presented by Janette McMurtrie, Ph.D., addressed aviation marriages and provided tools to add strength to these unions. “Flight careers are unique and bring special challenges to the partners,” Dr. McMurtrie noted in the session description. The session provided insight into the “pilot personality” and “aviation stressors” and their effects on marriage that informed pilots, spouses, and those aspiring making the move from the military to the airlines.
Another session Kay attended was titled Airline Pilot Families – Making It All Work. Addressing work-home balance is an oft-discussed topic, regardless of one’s career choice. But, with a pilot in the family, the scales of balance seem to be in a constant state of shift. The panel of airline pilots proffered “best practices” and solicited input from the audience. One of the most impactful takeaways that Kay noted was termed, “the art of coming home quietly” that applies to the spouse coming home and equally to the spouse at home. The panelist offering this term and its meaning noted that it had been transformational in her relationship. Instead of immediately jumping into the questions and addressing issues that had arisen during her work absence, she allows time. Her only question is, “What can I do for you?” It’s important to give the transition time and doing so “quietly” is the key, she noted. Also discussed in this session is the value of employing technology to maintain closeness and communication, an advantage available today that is immeasurably helpful, the panel noted. FaceTime®, don’t leave home without it!
Don’t let these sessions give you the impression that “women and family issues” are the focus. All the topics are relevant with appeal for anyone with interest in aviation. A quick look will prove my point; go to https://www.wai.org/education-sessions and examine the list.
Membership in Women in Aviation International is not limited to women and no other organization offers what WAI does. Resources that propel our industry should be celebrated by all within our ranks, regardless of gender and all the other limiting labels we tend to use. Explore Women in Aviation International and see how it can benefit you. https://www.wai.org.