As with most organizations, you won’t find any single foundational story about how the National Gay Pilots Association (NGPA) was founded and came to be a force for diversity and inclusion in aviation. In fact, outside of aviation, if you were to mention that there is an organization that seeks to unite and advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in the aviation industry, you would probably be met with puzzled looks. It is a niche within a niche of society and industry all at the same time. Despite relative obscurity, the NGPA has an important role to play in an industry that lags behind national averages in participation by minorities, women, and the LGBT community.
NGPA traces its origins back to the late eighties and early nineties in the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis. As the story goes, a handful of gay pilots responded to an ad in a flying magazine to meet at a bar in Provincetown, Mass. For identification, they were to wear an aviation-themed shirt. Most thought it was a shot in the dark that anyone else would show up. Though they were coming to discover new friends in the gay aviation community, only first names where used to protect those at risk of losing their jobs or being dishonorably discharged from the military. Today, many original members with those new to the group share a common bond in the isolationist belief they might be on their own as LGBT aviators. The evolution of the internet as a tool for uniting people of similar backgrounds and interests into a community has played a fundamental role in NGPA’s growth.
While other LGBT aviation groups exist, it is NGPA’s mission that sets it apart. The organization has developed a successful and robust scholarship program founded to help aspiring LGBT aviators and allies. What differentiates NGPA from other LGBT-oriented flying clubs is its core mission – the advancement of LGBT people in the field of aviation. This has become the purpose of its existence.
Taking cues from groups such as Women in Aviation International, the NGPA opened its scholarships to all who apply regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, provided they demonstrate advocacy for the LGBT community. At its inception, this was seen as an important way to gain allies and would become a common theme as the organization evolved into one that sought to more effectively execute its mission of advocacy.
During the Great Recession it seemed natural that the NGPA would capitalize on an opportunity to develop a job fair to help members aspiring to aviation careers. NGPA President David Pettet and Industry Expo Director Brian Gambino knew they wanted the experience to be different, however.
“As a previously laid-off pilot who had experienced the poor quality of overpriced job fairs, I knew we could offer something more affordable and worthwhile for our members and attendees, and we did just that,” said Director Gambino. “NGPA events aren’t like other trade shows or conferences; our combined professionalism and humor synergize to create an industry-leading experience that our corporate partners want to attend every year. As a result, the NGPA Industry Expo has gained exposure as the go-to advocate for LGBT inclusion and equality in aviation.”
“The NGPA has answered the calling to lead a global industry-wide effort to end homophobia and transphobia in aviation,” said NGPA President David Pettet addressing how the mission of NGPA has evolved to include many other initiatives. “Our educational resources and programs are proving to move the needle toward a fully-inclusive aviation industry. Our partnerships with organizations and businesses, and most importantly our allies, are proof of the need to help fulfill our message of equality for all minorities in aviation.”
Despite the NGPA’s vision for inclusion in the aviation industry, it has not forgotten its roots. During the past few years, it has re-invested an organizational focus on supporting its members locally in the form of community and regionally-based chapters, as well as chapters at colleges and universities that specialize in aviation. These chapters are a vital component to how NGPA synergizes local aviation and LGBT communities.
“The energy of our flagship events is breathtaking and provides a foundation for the work we do throughout the year,” explains President Pettet. “However, the relationships and camaraderie at our chapters across the globe is where the real work is being done. Participation and involvement – locally – is what will continue to strengthen the LGBT aviation community worldwide.”
In 2018, NGPA is spreading its message globally at events like the famous EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., the National Business Aviation Association EBACE event in Geneva, and London Pride, marching with its local NGPA UK chapter, just to name a few.
The organization’s scholarship has grown to offer opportunities that range from entry-level Private Pilot certificates to more advanced ratings needed to launch a candidate’s airline career. And its predominantly-volunteer staffing ensures an extremely low-cost structure while providing opportunities for enthusiastic members to serve as ambassadors of the LGBT community in aviation.
Time will tell the effectiveness of NGPA’s efforts to change a global industry, but if the past is any indicator, NGPA has matured allowing it to grow and adjust with the ever-changing tides in an already volatile industry. Worldwide, NGPA is making large strides to reach a destination where its members can be equal, authentic, and respected everywhere.